Making books better

Self-published authors, and the role of the publisher in the Kindle age, have been in the news again. First, Kerry Wilkinson announced his deal with Pan Macmillan after selling 250,000 copies of his self-published ebooks.  At the same time, Anthony Horowitz asked if publishers still had a part to play, before rubbishing the prose style of a popular self-published author and concluding that yes, publishers are necessary.

Meanwhile, J A Konrath - who spent last year criticising all 'legacy' publishers before signing a deal with Amazon - launched a blistering attack on the publishing industry that would surely make any new writer wonder why anyone would ever consider not self-publishing (or trying to get published by Amazon).  And the current No.1 author on Amazon is another self-publisher, Rachel Abbott, selling 3000 copies a day of her thriller, Only The Innocent.  She is now being courted by agents. 

Last summer, Louise Voss and I were, as far as I know, the first of the British self-published authors to be 'snapped up' by a publisher after hitting the No.1 and 2 spots on Amazon with our thrillers Catch Your Death and Killing Cupid.  The first of these has since been published by HarperCollins in paperback and ebook, so we now know what life is like on both sides of the fence.

I can't remember if, when we first put our books online, we did so with the hope of ultimately finding a publisher.  But as soon as we got some success, we had no hesitation in trying to find a publisher - well, maybe a moment, during which we wondered if we could do better on our own.  However, we knew how hard it would be to maintain that success, especially when promotion had become so time-consuming and neither of us had written a word since we'd published Killing Cupid.  What we really wanted to do was get on with the important stuff: writing books.

And we haven't looked back.  For Louise and I, being with our publisher is far preferable to being on our own, even though we lost all of our Amazon rankings and have effectively had to start all over again.  Even though we are both a couple of worriers who want to be in control of everything and have had to learn to let go to a great extent.  We can't tweak our blurb every hour or check our sales figures minute by minute.  We can't add cheeky sub-titles to our books any more... So why do we feel happier on this side of the fence?

The first reason is that we believe that being with a publisher will help us reach a bigger audience. Ebooks might be rapidly in the ascendant but they still account for the minority of sales, and we want our books to be real, in shops, on shelves.  Looking at your own ebook is a pathetic experience compared to holding your own book in your hand - for an author, even if it's becoming less important to readers, the paper book is still a potent object.  Our potential audience is now everybody who enjoys thrillers, not just those who own a Kindle.

The HarperCollins deal also led to translation deals with, so far, six other countries including Germany, Russia and Brazil. That would have been incredibly hard, if not impossible, to achieve on our own.

The second reason is, perhaps, a contentious one.  It doesn't how much success we had as self-publishers, we get more respect now we have a publishing deal.  We are seen as 'proper' writers. When you're self-published, even when you're No.1, you carry a faint whiff about you; you are the person who gets ignored at dinner parties. Of course, this is hugely unfair, and it will probably change. But once you have a deal, everybody, from other writers to bloggers to friends to taxi drivers, looks at you differently.  That's just the way it is at the moment.  It also makes you see yourself as a 'proper' writer.  Someone else has given you that nod of approval - and it does wonders for your confidence.

The final reason is the big one; the most important one. Quality. Publishers make books better. Having an enthusiastic editor, who can help you shape your work, is hugely important and Catch Your Death is a far better book in its HarperCollins version than in the original self-published version, despite the enormous amount of editing and re-writing Louise and I did originally.  I wish I could go to the 50,000 people who bought the self-published ebook and swap their copy for the new one.

We have just delivered our third novel, The Antidote, to our editor and are awaiting her verdict and suggestions. We know that this will help us make it into a much better book; in fact, our quality control was even higher when we wrote it than it would have been otherwise. It's like playing football professionally rather than having a kickabout in the local park. It makes you raise your game.

Creating a book is a collaborative effort and the publisher plays a crucial role in that collaboration. Whatever else they do, from getting you into shops to designing nice jackets, it all pales into insignificance compared to that essential service they provide to writers and, most importantly, readers. Making books better. And that is why Louise and I are happier to be published by somebody else than by ourselves. And why writers still, here in the bright digital Wild West of 2012, need publishers.




Making Books Better

Robin McKay Bell's picture

I agree completely with Mark's comments. My book, FINDING WORK AFTER 40, is published by Bloomsbury. It is widely available -- not just in the UK but also the US, the EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand -- and in every format for ebooks as well as paper.The quality is excellent because I worked with Lisa Carden, a first-rate editor. And the respect I get as a Bloomsbury author is obvious every time I say the name.


Light dawns...

Congratulations on your success, and I hope you score lots of goals in the Premier League.

I know what you mean about the stigma of self-publishing...up to a point. When I mention my novels, the first question I get asked is whether I have a publisher. I say I am self-published, and can see people thinking, "Her books aren't good enough to get properly published." So then I tell them my sales figures, and that does the trick. After all, readers are the ones whose approval really matters.

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