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Archive for the category “book industry”

Is freezing in a garret a prerequisite?

Chatterton 1856 by Henry Wallis 1830-1916There is this rather romanticised (and antiquated) idea that great art is created by young (mostly) male wannabees who laugh cruel fate in the face while they continue with their creative endeavours, no matter chillblains and empty stomachs, ice-cold draughts and ragged clothes. Our literary hero hoards his candle stumps so as to light his nightly progress with his roman à clef,  but no sooner does dawn tinge the night skies pink but he blows out the little flame, preferring to strain his eyesight to wasting any more of his artificial light source.

Such young men write about PAIN. They write about anguish and despair, about setting off to brave the world alone. Their world is harsh, their female protagonists are generally peripheral, and all that introverted focus results in a rather heavy read – which is why said writer is languishing in a garret to begin with. Now, not all garret-bound writers have written unreadable books. In Sweden, we have our own most brilliant if somewhat depressive and misogynist August Strindberg, who rose from humble beginnings to become a writer of quite some well-deserved renown (and doubtful repute, what with all his women). Great art has undoubtedly arisen from strained circumstances, but is it a necessity to suffer to write/compose/paint masterpieces? No, I would say – rather emphatically. What is required to create masterpieces is talent, perseverance and inspiration.

Irises-Vincent_van_GoghCreating masterpieces does not always result in monetary compensation. Take Van Gogh, for example. Did he ever enjoy the monetary fruits of his labour? Nope. His painting of irises may be one of the more highly valued works of arts in the world, but dear old Vincent spent his latter years in mental confusion (hence the ear business, one assumes) and does not seem to have reaped much material reward, despite increasing recognition of his genius towards the latter years of his (short) life.

Also, there’s the interesting little fact that masterpieces are generally defined by a selected few – an intellectual elite, if you will – and may therefore not necessarily reflect the tastes of the broad masses – and if you want to become rich through your creative efforts, then you had better appeal to the masses. To be brief, one can conclude that while writing masterpieces does not exclude material success, neither does it guarantee the writer will be rolling in money. If you write to earn your living, there may therefore be a need of a certain level of… umm… well, what can we call it? “Prostitution”? (Oh dear; hearts go all a-flutter, don’t they?)

aston_martin_db9-pic-12758Writers who are looking for high level income should choose genre carefully. Crime is a safe bet. Silent male hunk (think Reacher) driven by an inner moral compass but uninterested in cluttering up his life with emotional baggage as he goes about saving the world always seems to sell – mostly to men, who probably nourish a dream of living the simple life and being heroes at least once in their lives. Another safe bet is romance – but here the sub-genres are a veritable tangle to work your way through, and some are more successful than others, so do the research before deciding on whether your male protagonists will prance about in silk hose and breeches, a painted mouche on their cheek and a powdered wig atop their head, or slouch about looking delightful in an Aston Martin DB9 and cashmere (Aaaaaaahhhh, yes…)

The alternative to prostitution – a.k.a. writing what you think the market may want –  is to write what you feel passionate about and to hell with remuneration. In my experience, this leads to much better writing. Much. Okay, so there may only be a minority of people around who want to read about the Sherpa who got on the wrong bus and ended up in Zanzibar (and boy, was that a happy Sherpa: not a freezing mountain in sight to climb, just beautiful pristine beaches and a nice warm climate) but that minority will – hopefully – become your fans. Which is why, of course, I write about love and history, and time travelling and love and the 17th century and love and medieval rebellions and love and religious controversy and … Did I mention love?

Gabriel_Metsu_-_Man_Writing_a_LetterThese days, writing is no longer done on paper with ink that leaves ugly blots, those manuscripts pages then rushed off to be typeset. No, dear people, these days writing is done on computers.Yes, yes; some of us draft – or even write – using pen and paper, but ultimately authors these days will keyboard their characters, their plot and setting, into a precious .docx file that exists in multiple back-ups. (WHAT? You have no back-ups????? Well, you clearly like living on the edge, don’t you?) And once the file is on the computer, it is quite easy to publish it without having to do the agent/publishing house thing – you can do it all on your own. (Luckily, as otherwise those people who really, really want to read about the Sherpa and Zanzibar would never get the opportunity as the target reader group is ridiculously small)

The classic business model regarding books for the latest decades has included the author, the agent and the publisher. Any profit made would be shared by the three interested parties, and so long as the publishing companies controlled what was being published, things worked out pretty well. After all, until recently, if you wanted to read a book you needed to buy the physical printed product, and as long as the publishing houses ensured the market wasn’t flooded by too many books in the same genre, readers would browse what was available and buy, thereby guaranteeing higher sales per title, ergo nice, steady profits. Enter the age of digital publishing. Enter the age of Amazon. (I feel a sudden urge to sing here: “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars…” Chorus: “This is the dawning of the age of Aaaamazon, the age of Aaaaamazon, Aaaamazon“)

behemotYes, Amazon is a behemoth that is causing rampant death among many smaller and larger booksellers. Yes, Amazon has reinvented the book industry. Yes, Amazon drives e-book sales. Yes, Amazon has created space (he-he) for unpublished authors to go for it. Yes, Amazon is doing all this for profit. No, Amazon won’t go away – and neither will Smashwords or Kobo or all other similar on-line retailers. Or e-books. Why? Because for the reader, Amazon offers a cheap and accessible service, with the added benefit of e-books being far more environmentally friendly than the printed book.

As a consequence, the traditional business model within the book publishing world is under pressure. This leads to publishing houses having to become more restrictive regarding what they publish. Guaranteed sales need to be relatively high for the company to recoup on its investments. Sales of 10 000 copies will generate approximately 20 – 30 thousand pounds in gross profit, but this is before any promotional costs, any salaries to the people involved in the production as such (you know; editors, jacket designer, proof-readers – plus the overheads, such as the cleaners and the managers and the accountants and the sales reps and…) The book sells 5 000, and the gross taking is roughly 10 – 12 thousand pounds, which doesn’t leave much of a profit – if any –  once all expenses incurred have been deducted. It’s a tough world, the book business – almost as tough as life was back then, in that freezing garret room, where the only source of light and heat was a fluttering candle.

When the basic tenets of an industry change, this creates opportunities for new players. Enter the quality-minded, professional small publishing companies that cater to all those authors who no longer have a chance in hell of getting a contract with one of the traditional publishing companies – not because their book is bad, but because they’re not celebrities, or well-known authors that have an established fan base, or have a book that hits a trending sweet-spot. Or are immensely talented.

So, the enthusiastic as yet unknown author wants to publish, the small publishing house offers a package for self-publication and you have a marriage made in heaven. (A word of warning: double check the publishing house before going with them. You want someone who is serious about what they do)  End result of this matrimony = a book, a lovely, lovely book that has the writer smiling like an idiot while he/she strokes the cover (been there, done that). But is it a quality product? Aha! Key question, ladies and gentlemen, best replied by “Judge not a book by its cover“, because no matter how pretty the cover, it’s the content that matters, right?

for-your-eyes-only-stampIf you write for your own pleasure, you don’t need to worry about edits and formatting, about odd POV shifts, about excessive usage of adverbs. You’re doing if For Your Eyes Only, and so it can be just as unfinished as you let it be. But. Major, major but. You put it out there as a book you expect people to buy, well then you owe all those people a certain basic quality. Formatting is nice, for example. Correct spelling helps ( “You now it’s true!” she said. Err… ). Consistent use of verb tense, of names, of dates – all of this is a minimum. I recently read a book where the protagonist is eighteen on one page, twenty-six three chapters later when two years have passed, and in actual fact he must be sixteen as we are told he is ten years younger than another twenty-six-year-old. Very confusing, let me tell you –  and far from a quality product.

This, I believe, is the rub in the entire self-publishing debate. Too many books are published at a deplorable standard, and IMO it is the company facilitating the publication services that somehow must take a stance here. All books do not appeal to all readers – and that’s okay. Personally, I’d hate reading a book about a Sherpa that ended up in Zanzibar (I think; maybe if Stephen Fry wrote it I might reconsider). But as long as the book lives up to a basic standard, I won’t feel shortchanged if I buy it and then simply don’t like it.  So, dear wannabe writers, do yourself – and your future readers – a favour. Hire an editor. Please. Pretty, pretty please? And as to all those publishing houses that cater to the self-publishing industry (including dear, huge Amazon), how about making editing a prerequisite, huh?

paris-charity-in-a-garret-grangerIf we float back in time to that chilly garret (in Paris, of course it’s in Paris, and Rodolfo is holding Mimi’s cold hand while singing his heart out to her, and…oops, sorry, slipped away there) with our industrious author, we will find the floor around his chair littered with pages, pages where words have been scratched out – whole sentences even. Mr long-suffering author is in the editing phase, and because he is dirt poor and convinced he is the best writer since Molière, he scoffs when his timid muse suggests he let someone else take a look at his finished opus. Grammar, he says in a patronising tone, is for lesser writers than he. He is an artiste, a creator of masterpieces, not for him the ridiculous rules of syntax and spelling. No wonder he’s still stuck in that garret of his, cursing the world for not seeing the beauty of his text.

In conclusion, dear people, writers don’t need garrets. But they do need editors – and readers. And books, they need publishing houses that take the craft of writing seriously – so seriously, in fact, that they won’t set their name to a book (self-published or otherwise) unless it meets a certain standard. Like an ISO 9001 approval, but for books. Can’t be that difficult to put in place, can it? Hello? Mr Bezoz? Did you hear that?

Oh, and if someone feels like developing my Sherpa/ Zanzibar story, I do have a rough outline lying about (you call, Mr Fry, and I’ll come running).




Making it happen!

In my ongoing little odysseys into the world of publishing – and self-publishing in particular – I thought it would make sense to include a representative from one of those publishers who offer comprehensive publishing packages to aspiring authors. It is my belief that these publishers have a huge impact on how self-published book are perceived, by (hopefully) offering a quality look and feel to the finished product. The question, of course, is how much responsibility these publishers should take for the content…

SW logoI have invited Helen Hart from SilverWood Books to offer her opinions on these issues. I am sure she will offer quite some interesting opinions! So, dear Helen, welcome to Stolen Moments! I hope this brief visit with me hasn’t entirely crashed your busy diary, what with participation in conferences, open day events and what not – and just to ensure you sit down and relax for a while, how about a cup of tea? Or maybe one of my re-energising super smoothies with apple, raspberries, ginger, lime and mint?
Thank you for having me, Anna. And I’m delighted to accept a smoothie. Ginger and lime sounds refreshing and is sure to give me a boost!

Right; now that I’ve ensured you won’t die of thirst (I probably need to offer you a glass of water as well – tea and smoothies can be dehydrating), I’d like to start by asking you why you decided to start SilverWood Books.
A good question. I started SilverWood back in early 2007. A fellow writer had decided to make a foray into self-publishing. Sadly she used a company who let her down, and she suggested that I help her re-publish her book to a higher standard. I wasn’t keen at first as I thought, “I’m a writer, not a publisher”. But she persuaded me and actually I quickly found that I loved publishing even more than I loved writing. Making books and working with writers is much nicer than doing the writing myself. My writing friend and I did a good job together and produced a handsome book. Soon another writer asked me to work with her…and before long it snowballed and so SilverWood Books was born.

By now, you seem to have quite a thriving business up and running, but I’d suppose there were moments when you thought “Oh my God! What am I doing?” What motivated you to keep at it when things were really tough?
I’m very lucky because I genuinely love what I do. The company is growing and my small but specialist team of publishing assistants is a vital part of that. We’re committed to what we do, and to the authors we work with, and we also try to have fun each working day.

You are a successful author in your own right. Do you think this helps you in your role as a publisher? Is there a particular “writer’s POV” that you can apply at need?
Definitely. My writing career is one of the foundations on which SilverWood is built. Having worked as a professional writer for over a decade, I appreciate the writing process as well as the heart and soul that every writer pours into their work. The relationship between a writer and their publisher is an important one. It’s essential for a writer to feel that their publisher understands them and their aims for their book, and is there to offer support and nurturing throughout their career. That’s why, at SilverWood, we put so much emphasis on the relationships we build with our authors.

Self-publishing has taken off markedly in the last few years. Where do you see this development going in terms of sold books? At what point – if ever – will the majority of fiction sales be self-published rather than traditionally published?
I think we’re moving rapidly towards that. Some of our bestselling authors are outselling in a month what many, many trade published authors sell in a year. There’s been a radical shift in publishing within the past 18 months. It’s clear that self-publishing is no longer the poor cousin of trade publishing but a good first choice that allows the author flexibility and creativity. Not to mention control over their own work.

One of the more far-reaching consequences of self-publishing is that the traditional publishing business model comes under threat. With a lot of “cheap” books on the market – especially valid for e-books – prices are generally being pushed downwards, thereby reducing overall profitability on books. What will be the consequences of this, do you think? Will traditional publishing retreat to focus on “safe bets” only, whereby the newbie authors have no choice but to go for self-publishing?
I think that scenario is already upon us and has been for some time. However, I don’t think it’s that newbie authors have ‘no choice’. They have the ultimate choice – and the freedom to control their own books and professional platform.
Helen HartFrom a reader’s perspective, what benefits does the increase in self-publishing bring?
A vibrant library of books and greater choice. As you mentioned in the previous question, some areas of publishing have chosen to play safe and produce books that they know are going to succeed (because something similar succeeded the previous year…think ‘Fifty Shades’ and all the similar titles that flooded the market in the aftermath of that success). If writers have the choice and freedom to publish what they want, it allows them to experiment and be creative. Admittedly those experiments won’t always work, and there will be a considerable number of books of what might politely be termed ‘variable quality’. However it’s relatively easy for us as readers to sample books and check out the professionalism of editing, proofreading and presentation. Thus the risk of paying for a poor quality book is fairly low. Also, many ebook retailers will allow returns and refunds within a set period of time.
Likewise, from a reader’s perspective, what are the downsides with buying a self-published book?
If the reader is unwary or undiscerning then they might end up buying something that’s not that good. But then a lot of trade books aren’t that good, either. A ‘good’ book is down to personal taste. Look at how Rosamund Lupton’s ‘Sister’ divided readers with vehemently “I hated it” one star reviews alongside delighted “I loved it” five star reviews. You’d be forgiven for thinking people hadn’t read the same book. (For the record, I didn’t rate it very highly.)

What, in your opinion, is the single professional service a self-published author must never stint on, and why?

It would be hard to choose just one…may I have three? They’re all equally vital, in my opinion: copy-editing, professional typesetting (to ensure that your wonderful story is also readable in an enjoyable way rather than hard work for the reading eye), and cover design. Don’t stint on any of those things, and spend as much as you can afford on each.

How much do the popularity of the e-book and the growth of self-pub go hand in hand?
They’re inextricably linked nowadays, although I’d say that self-publishing was already thriving before e-books became popular. It’s interesting to see that statistics show that although e-books might outsell print books, it’s the author who offers both and gives their reader a choice who sells four times as many as the author who releases only in e-book format. A recent survey found that 70% of Americans prefer print books…and that apparently only 4% of the population regularly use an e-reading device. That’s quite sobering for anyone who’s decided to offer their book as ebook-only.

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 – in the interest of quality & readability – turn away prospective customers because they don’t quite meet the required standards?
I can’t speak for others but that’s definitely what we’re doing at SilverWood. We have two criteria: books for family and friends (where we are less selective and simply work hard with the author to make their book the best it can be as a family legacy) and books for commercial sale (where we help authors apply the same rigorous pre-press processes as a trade publisher would). If we feel an author isn’t ready for publication and their work should undergo further development, then we’ll give them as much sensitive feedback and information as we can. Some authors are very professional. They go away and do the work, resubmitting an improved manuscript later. Sadly, others decide we’re wrong and some fall into the arms of what used to be called ‘the vanity press’ where they pay a lot of money to publish something that’s only likely to sell a few copies. That’s a shame and at SilverWood we always feel quite sad when that happens. However we’ve learned that we can’t help everyone – and actually with ‘freedom to publish’ comes the ultimate freedom, which is to publish anything you like whether it’s ‘good’ or not. What was that phrase…’Publish and be damned’? I guess it has a different meaning now!

There are many self-pub authors out there who scoff at the notion of assissted publishing, saying that such outfits mainly exist to make money off the weaker souls among the aspiring writers (which would, in that case, include me. Except that I’m not weak…). What would be your comments?
Sadly it’s ignorance, and also a sweeping generalisation. There are sharks out there, but there are also good companies like ours operating with integrity and bringing very high standards.

(I also asked Helen to expound on the pros and cons of assisted publishing and “pure” self-publishing, but the reply became so lengthy it requires a post of its own, so Helen will be back at a later date to give her view on this – and I think I’ll invite some fellow authors along to give their view as well. I can imagine you are all more or less jumping up and down at the thought of this future post, right?)

Let us assume someone sends you a manuscript to read. It’s a great read (okay, yes a couple of minor spelling mistakes) and the writer wants your advice whether to submit to an agent/publisher or go it on their own with you. What would you say?
I would not only encourage them to try a publisher or literary agent, I’d offer to put them in contact with some. That’s because there’s one thing that self-publishing can’t do (yet) and that’s to place a copy (or three, or four) of a self-published book into the majority of bookstores in the country. We’re working on it, and making good inroads into showing that SilverWood titles are every bit as well-produced as trade published books (hence our relationship with Foyles in Bristol). However it’s hard work to do that on a national scale, and it needs the kind of big budget that self-publishers don’t tend to have at their disposal (including the ability to finance returned stock). So for that reason, if a writer wants to see their book in the majority of bricks and mortar bookshops, then a trade deal still has the edge.

Finally, let us assume you’ve volunteered to go to Mars to found a colony there. Unfortunately, baggage limits are severely restricted, and you are only allowed three books (which begs the question WHY on earth you’ve volunteered – must be the pioneer in you, right?) Which three books would you take along on this very, very, very long journey – and why?
What an amazing and original question. And challenging too. Only three…? I can almost feel the pain of separation from my wonderful books… Oh okay then. Three. ‘The Magus’ by John Fowles because I find something different in it every time I read it. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ because I love everything by Defoe and the story would make me feel there’s hope even if I’m on Mars. And finally, ‘War and Peace’ because I started the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation a few years ago and didn’t get very far. Maybe being on Mars will give me time to read it – and finish it!
Ha! One needs plenty of time to finish “War and Peace”  and an amazing memory for names and patronyms! I’m with you on “The Magus” – an intellectual challenge that poses as a great read. Not that these books would serve to keep you occupied all the way to Mars, which begs the question, would you ever consider signing up as a Mars colonist?
Do you know, I don’t think I would. I’d miss home comforts, and family, too much!

Right; that sort of concludes things for today. Thank you so much for stopping by,Helen, it has been quite the pleasure to have you here with me! 

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 INCEPTIO_front cover_300dpi_520x802AM: 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!

Helen Large

Ms Helen Hollick

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?

Harold Chosen KingHH: 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 bild

Ms Alison Morton

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 SUCCESSIO cover300dpi_520x800AM: 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.

Helen JesamiahHH: 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:

Helen Hollick can be found at her website or her blog

Alison Morton has a combined website and blog,


Giving recognition to Indie authors


Geri enjoying a stolen moment

It will not have slipped anyone’s notice that over the last few years the number of self-published books has increased dramatically. New technology coupled with an available distribution channel allows wannabe authors to enter the market all on their own, thereby creating quite the debate about self-publishing versus traditional publishing and also about quality in books in general, the basic assumption being that self-published books are of much lower quality than those that go through the traditional publishing process.

I have invited Geri Dunlap Clouston, President of indieBRAG, to spread some light on these issues. Geri is one of those people who gives astounding amounts of her time to find and promote quality self-pub books, so I dare say she will have a lot of interesting insight to share with us.
I would also recommend that you visit the indieBRAG website and browse through all the varied books displayed there. Having read quite a few of these books, I can vouch for the fact that they are at least as good as any traditionally published book! Yay!

First of all, Geri, very welcome to Stolen Moments. I know for a fact that you’ve recently spent quite some time in England – does that mean you’re sick and tired of tea, or can I tempt you with a little cuppa? (and yes, if you insist, I do have coffee as well)

I would love a cuppa and a chat! I am home now and miss tea time terribly. I am back to American coffee only because we have an amazing -and easy- coffee machine!

Now that we got the very important subject of beverage out of the way, I’d like to start by asking you to tell us a bit about indieBRAG and why you started it.

My husband is a self-published author as are several friends. When we first started to promote his books, we were quickly overwhelmed by the number of titles self-published each year, and dismayed at the poor prospects of standing out from the masses. We thought that there must be a way for diamonds to rise to the top of the coal heap but we could not find it (not that either of us necessarily believed his books were gems but they certainly weren’t lumps of coal). We discovered that there are professional (and often costly) review sites and writing competitions. However, none seemed to provide a reader-centric source to advise the public which indie books merit the investment of their time and money. It was then we got the idea of trying to expand the concept of book clubs across a larger base of independent readers; and setting the bar simply at whether or not a reader would recommend a book to their best friend. One thing led to another and now our global reader base numbers nearly 200! (Anna’s comment: it isn’t quite as simple as all that, as B.R.A.G. readers are asked to evaluate plot, character development, narrative, formatting, presentation & overall editing. But still: a book that lives up to all these criteria is obviously a book one would recommend.)

Having read my fair share of self-pub books, I must come clean and admit that sometimes the quality in these books sucks. Is it your perception the quality in self-pub is improving? If yes, why do you think this is happening?

That is hard to say. Certainly the quality of books being submitted to indieBRAG has improved since we began our Company two years ago. However, that may be due, at least in part, to a process of self-elimination as less-talented authors discover that only about 10% of the books submitted to us are honored with our B.R.A.G. Medallion and decide to forgo submission. More broadly, I believe that the quality of indie books will gradually improve as all those who saw self-publishing as a quick way to make millions realize it is anything but, and leave writing to those with more talent and stronger dedication to their craft.

 What, in your opinion, is the single most important thing for a writer to do/invest in to ensure a basic level of quality in their book?

Turning out a quality book is not easy- it takes skill and determination and hard work. While every aspect of publishing a book should be handled with the same determination and diligence that went into creating it, without question, editing is the single most important thing an indie author must do and have done to their work. And by that I am referring to more than simple spell checking. Depending on an author’s finances, at a minimum he or she should have their manuscript professionally copy edited, and preferably content edited. Too many writers rush to push that publish button: when placing the product of their many months of hard work in the public eye they should remember the old adage that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

There has been a lot of discussion about Amazon’s Kindle program allowing aspiring writers to flood the market with dross. Do you think this is a correct description?

As I mentioned before, about 90% of all the books submitted to us are rejected by our readers; and more to the point, 50% don’t even make it past our initial screen. This certainly supports the contention that the indie book market is heavily laden with dross. But without amazon’s kdp, and similar offerings, all but a tiny percentage of aspiring authors were locked out of the world of publishing. And the fact that bad indie books far outnumber the good, does not negate the reality that there are some really talented authors whose work would never have seen the light of day without amazon’s kdp and the like, as evidenced by the over two hundred excellent books we have honored on our website.

What should a reader look for when buying self-published books so as to be agreeably surprised?

A B.R.A.G. Medallion of course! (Sorry, I couldn’t help a bit of self-promotion). Having said that, other than our readers, I don’t think most people look to see who published the books they read, or even know the difference between self- and traditional publishing. Of course, this may change if and when they are burned by purchasing a really bad book and discover that it was self-published. But even then, it is very difficult to avoid this in the future because often indie authors create their own imprints that sound like traditional houses. And while there are many thoughtful and intelligent reviewers and bloggers out there, the brutal fact is that a reader can’t trust the reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads, (good or bad). Just as anyone can write and publish a book, anyone can leave a review – even if they haven’t read the book. We all know the stories of trolls, sock puppeting and paid reviews. I think the best way a prospective buyer can trust any book is through word of mouth from other readers who have no vested interest in the book; and, again, in effect that is what we have tried to create.

How much do the popularity of the e-book and the growth of self-pub go hand in hand?

I think they are rapidly becoming two sides of the same coin. Just as print-on-demand technology opened up the world of printed book publishing to indie authors, e-books have made entry into the field even quicker and easier. For readers, it provides much less expensive books and the convenience of shopping anytime, anywhere and receiving the book in minutes. Finishing one book at 2 am and downloading another in minutes is becoming the new reality of book buying. And although I would not encourage this, many self-published authors are choosing to only do e-books. The downside of this is that there are still readers out there who prefer the look and feel and smell of a book in their hands.

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 – in the interest of quality & readability – turn away prospective customers because they don’t quite meet the required standards?

That is an intriguing, and somewhat unsettling thought. If carried to its extreme, it could begin to shut the door to aspiring authors, and return the world of publishing to its former closed-door state. Indeed, as more and more traditional publishers acquire self-publishing companies it is not outside the realm of possibility. However, I don’t think self-publishers (or the traditional publishers who might own them) would want to lose the revenue that such selectivity would produce. To avoid this loss they would have to increase the fees they charge for services, which would drive aspiring authors elsewhere. However, it may eventually lead to market segmentation among self-publishers, whereby one or more companies carve out a ‘premier SP imprint ’ niche that offers an indie author a faster track to a contract with one of the big traditional publishing house.

One of the more far-reaching consequences of self-publishing is that the traditional publishing business model comes under threat. With a lot of “cheap” books on the market – especially valid for e-books – prices are generally being pushed downwards, thereby reducing overall profitability on books. What will be the consequences of this, do you think? Will traditional publishing retreat to focus on “safe bets” only, whereby the newbie authors have no choice but to go for self-publishing?

I think traditional publishers are already there. This is one reason many of them are acquiring self-publishing companies as I mentioned in the previous answer. This provides them with an opportunity to reduce their risks by offering contracts only to authors who have already proven their profit potential. I was at a book seminar this past year where a speaker from one of the traditional publishers told the audience made up mostly of self-published authors that if they have sold several thousand books and have a following, she would love to talk to them. Hardly an appealing sales pitch. I am not sure why any indie author who was that successful would be interested!

Let us assume someone sends you a manuscript to read. It’s a great read (okay, yes a couple of minor spelling mistakes) and the writer wants your advice whether to submit to an agent/publisher or go it on their own. What would you say?

Well, as you know we only consider books that are already published and commercially available, but to answer your question, I would first tell a writer to do their homework regarding both options. On one hand, I would caution them that even if they were among the tiny percentage of previously unpublished authors who were successful in getting an agent, and eventually a publishing contract, it was highly likely that they would be disappointed with the eventual outcome. This is based on the feedback from many of our Medallion honorees who were previously traditionally published. In return for a royalty of 25% or less, they would lose control over virtually everything to do with their book, including its title, cover, interior design and even its content. And they would still be expected to do the lion’s share of promoting the book. Not a very appealing scenario.

On the other hand, I would tell them that there is far more to becoming a successful self-published author than writing the book and pushing the publish button. I would remind them that their book will be judged against all books, not just self-published books, so that they had better do everything in their power to make it the best it can be. This means getting it edited properly, having a quality cover designed, and developing an effective promotion plan. For a writer who is willing to do this, and many are, this is the way to go. They will keep up to 75% of the books sales price and they will answer to no one other than themselves.

Finally, which three books would you insist on taking along to a deserted island – and why?

There are a number of B.R.A.G. Medallion books that have become my absolute favorites but it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to single them out. I truly am proud of every book we present on our website.

Now among other books that I have read, Les Miserables is an all-time favorite of mine – but having said that, I even found it needed editing (a curse of my job!) I also love anything Jane Austen. And finally, I am currently reading an incredible biography of Beethoven- Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph which is fast becoming a favorite.

Ha! I wonder what Victor Hugo would say to that? And me, I listen to Beethoven rather than read of him – maybe something I should correct. Thank you, Geri for having taken the time to answer my questions – it was a pleasure having you!

Thank you so much Anna for giving me this opportunity to spend time with you and talk about the thing I love best – indieBRAG!

Other than on the website, indieBRAG can also be found on FB

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