Big Publishing and Me (14): Tilting at windmills

strange-death-cover-350pxI’m Harry Bingham. I’ve never previously written in detail about my adventures in the land of publishing, but here it is: the full story. I hope it’s of interest.

These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in the US, and if you would like to buy that book you may do so here.

“An exceptional piece of work . . . Fiona’s narrative sears the page.”– Kirkus Reviews


[<<Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]
Fiona Griffiths may never again be published by Bantam Dell, but that’s not to say that her American adventures are over. Indeed, in a way, they’re only starting. Because the ebook revolution has placed a strange new power in the hands of authors: the power to cut out publishers altogether.

Which is precisely what I’m now doing. At the end of last month, on January 29, 2015, I self-published my first proper novel. It’s not quite a true first for me – I’ve released some of my backlist via Amazon, iTunes and the rest – but this is the first ‘frontlist’ book of mine I’ve ever launched without a publisher.

That doesn’t mean I’ll be 100% indie – on the contrary, I’ll be a true hybrid. In the UK, Orion have simply been too good for me to want to make any changes. With a little luck, Fiona Griffiths & I will see out our careers in the embrace of that same fine firm. And, of course, my overeas sales have been achieved thanks to the risk-taking and conviction of a host of foreign publishers. I’m deeply indebted to each and every one of those guys: it’s always a big bet taking on a new, overseas author. Kudos to the people who do it.

But at the same time, I relish the thought of self-publishing. Love the adventure, the control, the sense of purpose – and, in the rest of this post, I want to talk a little about how I see this American adventure of mine.

So far, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how cheap and easy the whole exercise has been. The production and distribution of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in North America has cost me something like this:

Editorial input $0 I get this from Orion already
Copyediting $0 I got a copyedited manuscript from Orion, and I’ve Americanised – no, Americanized – the spellings myself. The result won’t quite be Bantam-quality, but it’ll be easily good enough for 99% of readers.
Cover design $700 Again, it’s possible to pay more than this or less than this, but seven hundred bucks bought me a choice of (literally) hundreds of designs from dozens of designers. The final shortlist of 8 or so covers included some very strong, very marketable designs. I’m very happy with the final version.
Ebook conversion $100 If I’d wanted to save money, I’d have done this myself. It’s not hard, just boring.
Distribution via every online bookseller in North America $200 Prices vary. I’ve uploaded the book to Amazon myself, but have paid someone to reach the various other vendors. I could reach a worldwide audience for the same price, except that I’m restricted by my contract with Orion. Note that I pay a fixed annual fee for the distribution service and a 0% share of royalties.
Page layout for a POD (print) version of the book, sold via Amazon / Createspace. $200 The layout isn’t quite Big Publisher standard, but the text itself looks a million dollars and the book – a big, generously margined trade paperback – is handsome and well-produced.
TOTAL (approx) $1200
I commissioned this cover via 99designs. I'm very happy with the result.

I commissioned this cover via 99designs. I’m very happy with the result.

All this doesn’t quite get me a Bantam-quality publication, but it’s worth noting where the process is and is not deficient. In terms of cover design, my experience has consistently been that where I’ve believed a cover to be bad, it has been bad. No one knows a book like its author, nor does anyone else care as much.

My approach to cover design was to set out a brief, then throw it open to multiple designers. The cover I chose (left) is edgy, surprising and eye-catching – and it works very well on a thumbnail view, which is how most people will first encounter it on the Amazon/iTunes/B&N sites.

True, the cover is such that plenty of people really won’t like it, but I’d always much rather have something that arouses strong passions in both directions than something which is too bland, too safe. I think the image I finally selected is just excellent – and I’m pretty sure that at least 6 or 7 times out of 10, my way of creating a cover will produce better designs than I’ve generally had from my publishers in the past. That’s not because my best designs will be better than their best , but because I’ll be sure of avoiding anything weak, or poorly targeted, or too bland, or just plain rubbish.

Likewise, have you noticed how often ebooks are laid out in a dumb way? Because they’re produced by a culture that still reveres print, they often bow to the gods of that realm. But when a reader uses the ‘Search Inside’ feature on Amazon or a similar website, what they want is (a) a short description of the novel, (b) perhaps a short bio of the author, and (c) some actual text. That’s how my ebooks will be laid out. They’ll put the meat right there on the platter. Publishers’ ebooks are seldom laid out that way. You get those tiresome wads of copyright notices, blank pages, title pages, dedication pages. All good things, but they don’t need to sit upfront. In a print book, yes, they look nice and appropriate. In an ebook, they should go hang out somewhere else.

In editorial terms, I accept that my position is a little different from most would-be authors, in that I already have an exceptional editor at Orion. But suppose I didn’t have that. I run an editorial company, so I know as well as anyone that £500 / $800 would buy Big Publisher quality editorial input. (I know it’s Big Publisher quality because plenty of our editors have come to us from the industry. If we wanted more such editors, we could retain them with ease.) My books don’t usually need extensive editorial rehab, but if they did, I could spend more as needed. I could go on working till the job was done. One of my past editors told me that her other work commitments left her with about a day and a half for editorial work on each manuscript she handled. The simple truth is that, these days, most editors don’t do much editing: they’re too busy with other things.

As for copyediting – phooey. Books need copyediting, but it’s an easily buyable resource. Most big publishers outsource this activity in any case. Bantam’s standards were particularly excellent and that delighted me, because I’m the sort of person who cares about those minutiae. Most people don’t. If it really matters to you, $2000 will give you an excellent manuscript. Half that money would give you a good one.

As for ebook conversion and distribution – double phooey. You pay a few bucks and get a service no better and no worse than any regular publisher has access to. Sure, publishers would love you to believe that there are secrets in the construction of Amazon metadata that only they have access to, but that’s nonsense. I saw a book on Amazon recently – a book launched by an excellent publisher, and authored by someone who was herself a very experienced and capable editor at a good house – where the book description did not, in fact, contain any description of the book. Nor did the ‘search inside’ feature extend to the back flap or any material which actually told you what lay inside. So here’s one secret of metadata: the book description needs to describe the damn book.

So much for mechanics. There are still some ways – some big, important ways – in which Big Publishing has a powerful advantage over the individual.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus and all those other publications took my work seriously because I was not a self-pub author; I had the authority and prestige of Random House behind me, and also the authority and prestige of print. Will those publications still want to review my work if I have neither publisher nor hard copy to offer them? Well, actually, the answer is yes, maybe. Both those periodicals have deals whereby indie authors can get a review from a PW/Kirkus editor. (It’s free with PW and costs about $400 with Kirkus: a sum I was happy to invest.)

Obviously, indie authors can’t assure themselves of a good review, merely an honest one, and any decisions about what will appear in the print editition of those magazines is down to the magazine’s own editorial judgement – but, yes, indie authors can, in principle, secure reviews. Whether other newspapers – the NY Times, the Boston Globe, the Seattle Times and the rest – will choose to review independently published books by an author (and in a series) they once liked, I have yet to see. But, for sure, it would be an easier ride if I had Random House behind me.

The big firms have other advantages too. Amazon has a ‘Vine Program’ which places advance copies of books in the hands of some of the firm’s most trusted reviewers, so that by the time a book is actually launched, there are already some intelligent and thoughtful reviews available for readers.

Publishers also – and this is a biggie – have access to various online promotional schemes that simply aren’t available to the hoi polloi. You can get access to them, or some of them, through the Amazon White Glove program, but that program requires Amazonian exclusivity, which makes no sense in the US market. So yes, publishers have an advantage here that we can’t mimic. That’s a mighty big one too.

And then too, publishers are big firms with big resources. They’ll have road-tested numerous ways of enhancing digital uptake. Does advertising on Facebook work? Are there other sites where advertising enjoys a significant return on investment? Just exactly what are the long term benefits of short term price cuts? Which bloggers actually influence sales? And so on. Some of these things can be teased out by individual writers, and the indie publishing world is superb at energetically disseminating the lessons learned, but still. We start from scratch. Publishers have a long head start and a pool of data we’ll never match.

On the other hand, individual authors have their own strengths, and they are mighty.

First and foremost is the sweet ability to cut prices. Books sell more copies at $3 than they will at $6 or $8. Aside from temporary price promotions, Big Publishing simply can’t afford to permit prices to fall to those kind of levels: their business model implodes if they do. But authors can, and why not? Our business model doesn’t implode, it blossoms. Blossoms and fruits. Because publishers currently take 75% of net receipts from ebooks, authors can halve the price of their works and still double their royalties. What’s more, as Wool author Hugh Howey has noted, readers prefer cheap books. That is: they rate them more highly. If you eat a somewhat similar meal at $10 and at $40, you’ll rate the first one better, simply because it outperformed your lowly expectations. Perhaps it’s not the greatest compliment in the world for an author to be told that his book was ‘good for $3’, but if it brings better ratings, greater sales and double the per-book royalty? I’ll take those dodgy compliments with a smile.

That’s not all.

Publishers have evolved as corporations selling to corporations. Success in that game relied on good logistics, careful price negotations, strong regional sales teams, and so forth. Communications felt corporate, because they were designed to be. Because they had to be.

The ebook revolution makes it easy for authors to sell books direct to readers – and not just sell to them, but talk to them. Scattered through these blog posts, you will find short messages from me that invite you to sign up to my mailing list. If you are good enough to sign up, you will get a short email from me whenever one of my books is due to be published. The email will come straight from my laptop to yours. I’ll write it as I’d write anything else: human to human, from me to you. You may or may not want such a message, but I’d bet fifty bucks that you certainly wouldn’t want the message if it came to you from a corporate communications department. Who’d want that? (And indeed, if you’d like to hear from me when I’m releasing a new book, please just sign up here if you’re British or Irish or here if you’re American/Canadian. The process will takes a few seconds and it will make you happy.)

The same thing with tweets and blogs and all that malarkey. It’s unclear, I think, how much that kind of thing really boosts sales, but if it does, then authors are way better positioned to reap the rewards. Different things will work for different books, different audiences, and different authors, but it’s hard to think of a single instance when the author does not hold the advantage over the publisher, simply because people want to connect to people, to an author not a PR department.

That flexibility of communication extends far beyond social media. These little series of blog posts is an example. Put aside the subject matter for a moment, no publisher could ever ask an author to write more than 30,000 words in online sales material – the author would feel, rightly, that he or she was doing most of the work involved in promotion, while the publisher was scooping most of the rewards. Yet when the work and the rewards are aligned, authors can be flexible, creative and committed in finding those extra routes to public notice. These posts have taken me three weeks or so to write, prepare and upload. If they ignite book sales in North America, those weeks will prove to have been very well worthwhile. And if not – shucks, who cares? I enjoyed doing it, and I think I’m saying something of interest & value. Those simply aren’t attitudes that could exist, that should exist, within a more corporate structure.

And since I’m talking self-promotion, please allow me to do just that. My Fiona Griffiths novels aren’t shoot-bang, all-action thrillers, but they are – if I’ve done my work right – dark, intense, properly written crime stories with a haunting, even touching, strangeness to them. Think Lisbeth Salander given a makeover by Tana French and Gillian Flynn. They’re like that, only Welsh- and you could go and buy Strange Death right now:

Buy on (US readers)

Buy on (UK readers)

You’re just five bucks away from happiness, so think hard and choose smart.

So – sales pitch concluded – let me simply note that e-publishing gives author a flexibility of approach that the old-style industry never did. We can experiment with short stories, novellas, free give-aways. We can fool around, see what works, then run with that. Even if regular publishers were to put their print preconceptions to one side, and invited 30,000 word novellas and the rest, the clanking machinery of the commissioning, contract & editorial process would be too cumbersome for either side to manage.

Finally, though publishers still dominate the ecosystem of regular print books, independent writers have some resources of their own. The indie publishing community has, with remarkable speed, created a network and an ecosystem all of its own. It has its leaders and its review sites. Its own bush-telegraph of ratings and approval. Those things can’t be crudely steered or manipulated, but nothing enduring is built any other way.

In my hands, Fiona Griffiths won’t be entering the American market alone. Though the shock and awe of Random House’s mighty forces will no longer be available to her, she’ll have something else on her side: a rag-tag army of indie authors, indie readers. That army may not look like much, but insurgent forces never do. They sometimes win, for all that.
[The story starts to wind up here.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here right now.

If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here.

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  • Pinkbelt75

    Good Luck to you, Harry.

    Self publishing in your case definitely sounds like a winner. Thanks for sharing your journey. I am currently embarking on some additional research for my own crime novel and I think your books will add something different to the mix. I am gorging myself on Jo Nesbo, Michael Connelley and Stuart McBride at the moment, but a few extras won’t hurt.
    Just bought all three.

    Cheers pinkbelt75

  • So glad that you picked that cover- and well done on giving Self Publishing a go.

    Yes – it’s time consuming.
    Yes – the marketing side does take commitment and work.

    But the control one has over the project is terrific.

    Your above costs are reflective of outlay for publishing.
    Because I work on my own covers, I’d be spending almost as much on copy-editing and proofreading. (2 areas that often authors ignore – big mistake).

    Good luck with the release!