Hearing it from the writers
It has probably not escaped your notice that I’ve been doing a series pf posts about publishing, reading and writing. Today, I’m opening my doors wide to welcome Helen Hollick and Alison Morton, two very different ladies that have one characteristic in common: they are both equipped with enough driving force to create a gale. They also have in common that they write very good books – Alison’s latest book cost me all my fingernails, while Helen’s books about Jesamiah Acorn generally have me wishing the bloody man was real – and with me.
Right; with introductions out of the way, let’s jump straight into the interview. The ladies have expressed a predilection for tea, and Helen has made sure my homemade scones are accompanied by Devon cream. (Mmm. No need for you to sit on the side-lines and salivate as we dig in, so no further descriptions will be given)
Right; now that we’re all comfortably seated, I’d like to start by welcoming you to Stolen Moments and asking you to briefly introduce yourself as authors. What do you write, what do you plan to write?
AM: I write Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. It was marvelling at the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) when I was 11 that started me wondering what a Roman society would be like if run by women… I’m a feminist, too, more ‘lite’ than bra-burning (see here) , so I developed the writing technique of gender-mirroring. In an action scenario, you swap the typical roles of the men and women seen in other thriller stories. Interesting consequences… (Anna says: Too right!)
And the future? Now that Carina Mitela’s story in (dare I say award-winning?) INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO has mostly been told, it’s back to the 1960s. We find the redoubtable Aurelia Mitela as a young woman, lonely and unsure of her way in the world, but confronted by an enemy who not only wants to destroy her but her beloved Roma Nova. That’s the next three books taken care of!
HH: I write two different Historical Fiction genres: my ‘serious’ historical fiction comprises an Arthurian Trilogy, set in the fifth century – the ‘what might have really happened’ story of King Arthur. In my trilogy there is no myth or magic, no knights in armour, no Lancecelot – no Merlin, just the story of a man who fought hard to gain his kingdom, and fought even harder to keep it; helped, and occasionally hindered, by the love of his life, Gwenhywfar. (The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner, Shadow of the King)
I have also written two Saxon novels, one about Emma of Normandy, who became Queen of England to two different Kings, and was mother to two more, (A Hollow Crown (UK title) / The Forever Queen (US title) and a story about the people and events that led to the most famous date in English History – 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. (Harold the King (UK title) / I Am the Chosen King (US title)
My other books are a pirate-based nautical adventure series – The Sea Witch Voyages. I wrote them for fun – hopefully readers enjoy them for the same reason! There are four published at the moment. Sea Witch; Pirate Code; Bring It Close and Ripples In The Sand. On The Account will be published soon. (Anna says: YAY!)
I also have an adventure series planned as a spin-off from my Arthurian Trilogy – The Madoc The Horseman Series. Not written yet though!
Helen, I know that you have made an active choice to re-publish your backlist through self-publishing – and to self-publish your new titles. What were your motivations behind this?
HH: I was dropped simultaneously by my (ex) agent and publisher, William Heinemann because historical fiction had taken a bit of a downturn and the publishers did not want to re-print my backlist. I had the choice of giving up being a writer or obtaining my copyright back and going Indie. I chose the latter. While I was about it I decided to also bring out Sea Witch. I was repeatedly told (by agents and publishers) that Sea Witch was good but because there was a cross-over of genres – historical fiction and fantasy – they would be difficult to market, and besides, “pirates are not popular”. I still cannot understand this last statement – pirates have always been popular! I might add, I have no trouble marketing my books.
And are you still happy with your decision?
HH: Yes. Definitely. Although I do have the advantage of being traditionally published with my serious historical fiction in North America; I am what they call a “hybrid” author.
Alison, did you ever consider attempting to publish the traditional route? If yes, what made you decide to go for a self-publishing alternative?
AM: I did indeed and was getting some full reads and ‘good’ rejections; “fresh, intelligent writing”, tight dialogue”, “good action sequences”, etc. Most concerns were about how to market “such innovative, high concept stories”. But both Helen Hart of SilverWood Books and my agent, Annette Crossland of A for Authors say they cannot understand why the Roma Nova stories weren’t snapped up by a mainstream publisher.
Anyway, I wanted my stories to reach readers – they are the ultimate arbiters, so I investigated self-publishing. I wanted my books to be have the higher possible production values, so I decided to go for assisted publishing.
What would you say are the main drawbacks for a self-published author?
AM: Ah, the terrible twins of visibility and discoverablilty; ultimately, not being in the bookshops, and bearing the cost of marketing.
HH: The only disadvantage of being Indie: I would very much like to have my books published in foreign languages in different countries, but it seems you need an agent for this. Also the current trend is for audio books, it would cost a hefty sum for me to produce all mine in this format. The marketing is also very hard work – I visit social media every day. And I would like to point out that Helen expends a sizeable part of her time and energy on promoting other indie authors.
And the benefits?
HH: You are in charge of your own books. No agents or publishers insisting on changes – or awful covers. ( I speak from experience.)
AM: a) Freedom! A freedom that includes the freedom to fail, to make horrible mistakes, but also to choose and make decisions about your book. b) Flexibility and ability to set timing to suit you, and the high proportion of input into production, which is another way of saying control.
Which part of the book business do you find most challenging? Personally, I find the promotional aspect difficult, do you agree?
AM: The first draft! After the delights of research and thinking up the main plot structure, sitting down and giving physical form to the story running around your head is hard.
HH: I miss the input of a publishing editor when it comes to decisions: what should be left in or out of a novel, what cover to use? I always used to discuss the plot and way forward with a next novel with my agent and editor – now I am on my own. Decisions are sometimes hard when you are grubbing in the dark for good ideas. Promotion yes – I enjoy Facebook and Twitter but sometimes I feel it to be a bit of a burden (even though my internet friends are all lovely!)
AM: I don’t find promotion difficult – I’m an extrovert – it’s just a huge time-suck and you never know what works best. But I do know that if I stop promoting, sales go down. I favour soft promotion – blog writing, interviews, chatting, social media, but sometimes you do just have to go on Twitter and remind people about your book… And here I’m chuckling: to say Alison is an extrovert is a major, major understatement, wonderful woman that she is!
One of the comments made about self-published books is that the quality is deficient when compared to traditionally published books. What are your comments?
AM: I used to get that thrown in my face, but when I put my books in people’s hands, that changed. Now I get, ”Well, we know yours are excellent, but most are terrible.” And I can’t deny it. I’ve read some real shockers some starting with reams and reams of description and not getting to the action, some that are grammatically dreadful, some dripping with purple prose and some just not edited, neither structurally nor copy edited.
HH: Traditionally published books can also be bad. I do wonder, sometimes, how some managed to get published. Quality – in the writing style and in the production – can be poor in self-published books, I agree, but standards are getting higher now that writers are realising that the look of a book is also important.
How can one go about improving the quality of self-published books? What can you – well, we – as writers do?
HH: To be taken seriously as an author in the Indie world you have to make sure that your book is produced to a high quality level, that includes having it professionally edited and proof read, using a professional to design the cover, and ensuring the final product is of good standard – no comic sans font with text left-justified, for instance. Surely, after all that hard work of actually writing the thing you want to send it out into the world looking its best?
I am amazed at how many books do not come up to standard. It is so simple to check – compare your proof copy with a mainstream produced novel and ‘spot the difference’. Is the font clear and a reasonable size? Are the margins too wide, too narrow? Are they properly aligned? Are there any ‘widows’ or ‘orphans’ (a single word or sentence on a page, usually at the end of a chapter.) Do the last lines on the page align with the page opposite – did you use white paper instead of cream, which can make the pages ‘glare’ quite a bit thus making an uncomfortable reading experience. Did you use great swathes of italics (so very hard to read). Did you put the author and title on the spine and the front cover? (You would be surprised at how many authors don’t!) Are there any typos? Check and double check – and do not rely on a spellchecker to edit, words such as their/there hair/hare get missed!
AM: Well, my number one bugbear is editing. If an author isn’t willing to invest in themselves enough to commission a professional edit then I think they should ask themselves why they self-publishing. The other thing I feel strongly about is a need for a quality mark or standard across the whole self-publishing industry. Now this is quite going to be quite hard to get off the ground, but systems like the BRAG Medallion and Ascribe, a new one, and Awesome Indies are paving the way.
I agree regarding BRAG and all that – and sometimes I wonder just how many traditionally published books would have made it through the BRAG process… not as many as some think, I believe!
There are a number of self-publishing providers out there who offer excellent comprehensive services to aspiring authors. Do you think that over time these providers will become far more selective as to what they actually choose to publish under their imprint, i.e. will self-publishing providers turn away prospective customers because they don’t quite meet the required standards? If yes, is this a development you applaud?
AM: That’s an easy one: yes, and yes. The good providers have a reputation to keep up and with the growing self-publishing market they need to be selective, for business reasons alone.
HH: It would be a wonderful ideal to aim at, but unfortunately is unlikely to happen especially with the larger companies. Small ‘personal’ companies wishing to make a respected name for themselves are already doing this, mainly because they have only a few staff members and a smallish client list. Therefore, they can turn away the non up-to-standard authors and concentrate on the better ones. Larger companies have more staff and are in a profit from business scenario – authors pay for what service they want, which may or may not include editing etc. I would hope that the better quality companies do reject the poorer quality submissions though.
Interesting: Alison seems to be of the opinion that it will help business to be selective, while Helen doesn’t believe the business constraints allow for such a development. I guess we will have to ask a publisher to comment…
Finally, let us assume the two of you end up on a deserted island – and aren’t you lucky to have each other under such dire circumstances? Anyway: the boat you were on sank, and together you could only salvage three books. Which three books would you agree on saving, and why?
Well, dear people, that didn’t work out AT ALL, as the two ladies ganged up on me and insisted they be allowed three books each. I, being a polite hostess, caved in…
AM: My nominations include Restless by William Boyd – Best spy book ever and with two strong female leads; The Prince by Machiavelli – for dealing with reality and keeping the brain exercised and Julian by Gore Vidal – The absorbing story of one of the most enigmatic Roman emperors and written by a master storyteller
HH: I would save a Rosemary Sutcliff – probably Mark of the Horse Lord or Frontier Wolf because Rosemary’s books are beautifully written and these two are my favourites. I wish I could write half as good as her!
Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons because this is the novel that led to me becoming a published author; I wrote to Sharon thanking her for writing it and added that I wanted to write books. She answered, “If you can write such an interesting four-page letter – I can’t wait to read the book.”
My third book would be The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. It is an inspiring fantasy novel and many of its scenes stay firmly with me. The story has been an enormous influence on my life and my writing.
I’d not worry too much about being stuck on a desert island, though, because I’m sure my Jesamiah Acorne would come and save us in Sea Witch!
Quite eclectic in their tastes, these ladies. Here be Dragons is definitely on my list as well, and I have obviously been remiss in not reading Julian. Oh dear; there went another book onto my TBR pile…
Thank you so much for stopping by ladies! It has been quite the pleasure to have you here with me – even if I am now totally out of scones and homemade blackberry jam!
If you want to know more about my guests, I recommend that you visit their websites and blogs:
Alison Morton has a combined website and blog,