Misadventures in publishing

After the news this week that I have signed a publishing deal with Pan Macmillan, I thought I would write a little bit about my experience with "the industry" over the past few months.

My first book, Locked In, started selling pretty much straight after I self-released it. Within two or three weeks, it had climbed into iTunes' top 20, then not long after it started to sell well on Kindle too.

On the advice of a "proper" author, at some point in those initial four or five weeks, I emailed a few agents pretty much by picking names from the internet. I gave them the details of what I had already done and got a handful of half-interested replies but nothing other than that. I wasn't too bothered by the apathy because, while that was all going on, I was learning more and more about e-publishing and how everything worked. It was approximately 13 weeks from me releasing Locked In to it reaching number one on Kindle.

That was the point where a handful of other agents began to become interested – as you might expect. My initial impression of them was, to be honest, quite appalling. I had numerous patronising emails almost entirely promising to make me rich and/or telling me any success I had already had would be short-lived if I didn't go with them. What was also clear was that none of them had read anything I had written, or knew anything other than the fact that I was selling pretty well.

Perhaps those types of bullying overbearing tactics would draw in some people but I don't really go for that.

With all the people who contacted me, only two really treated me as something other than a walking opportunity to make money.

The first was a woman who gave me decent critique of some of my work after I sent her my-then unpublished book three to read. We had some pleasant email chats but, although I liked her, I never really got the impression she knew quite what to do with me.

No-one seemed to understand the dual facts that a) I actually enjoy my day-job and wasn't in a hurry to give it up; and b) I wasn't desperate to get a conventional book deal.

With that in mind, I was pretty jaded with the amount of emails I was getting and the fact no-one with the exception of that one person actually listened to anything I had to say.

And then one Thursday, I got an email from someone who is now my agent.

She was the first agent who contacted me having actually read Locked In. That surprised me but, in retrospect, should have been the absolute least I expected.

Not only had she read the book but she could tell me about the positives and the negatives within it. Then she had a plan for what she wanted to do with me. She also wanted to meet – and was willing to travel up to the rainy, grey north to do so. Again, looking back, that feels like it should be a basic but, because I had been so unimpressed with almost everyone else, it felt strange.

What began happening at more or less the same time was that I started receiving offers from overseas publishers for translation rights. This was probably the first aspect of everything that felt a little beyond my skill set. Because she had been honest and approachable, I began to forward those requests to her to help me with.

Although I was still number one in the Kindle chart and, if anything, sales were increasing, my agent had a plan for what she thought I could do in the future. I still had no real inclination to chase a publishing deal but, as she pointed out, I had nothing to lose by letting her do the work behind the scenes and, if anything came from it, then I could consider things.

My only qualm was that I felt guilty about the fact she could be working her arse off for someone who was essentially a stranger for potentially no reward. Ultimately, she seemed happy to do it and wanted nothing up front.

While all of that was going on, I was still writing, still working and still selling very well – plus getting emails from agents who simply didn't get it.

Not only that, but two of those agents whom I had contacted way back in August decided they were no longer half-interested and instead actually interested. I guess the fact I was the number one book and had sold a very high volume of copies was a coincidence when it came to their change of mind . . .

Things reached something of a crescendo around Christmas 2011. On Christmas Eve, Locked In sold its 100,000th copy. On Christmas Day, I was the No. 2 book behind The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which had a massive Hollywood film and a dramatic price-cut behind it. Between my three titles, I sold a tiny bit under 10,000 copies in a day in the UK. Boxing Day was pretty good too.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that really made people sit up and take notice.

So on a day in January, my agent asked if I fancied going to London to meet with a host of editors at various publishers around the capital. The only problem on the day was that I had been really ill for around a week beforehand and was sporting a bit of a cough and had the voice of someone set for an afternoon of making mucky phone calls. Admittedly that is how I spend at least one afternoon a month but still...

Even though I still wasn't entirely convinced I wanted to go, ahem, "mainstream", I had a decent day meeting people who were very nice and had actually also read at least some of my stuff. Like a true tourist, I also went to Hamleys, which was obviously the highlight, then the pub.

I had an offer or two from publishers within a week or so but still wasn't completely sure they could offer me anything I couldn't do for myself.  My agent was very good at explaining the benefits of each side and never pushed me into leaning one way or the other - even though, if I chose to carry on myself, she would have made no money.

I then received an email from the head of PR for Amazon UK asking if I wanted to contribute a quote towards a press release they were sending out which said Locked In was their No. 1 bestselling book for the final quarter of 2011 – and that I was their No. 1 author.

I had to sit on the news for around a week . . . and then things kicked off again.

I received many, many more emails from agents, including representatives from some very famous people. Only one of them had read anything I had done. Then there were more foreign rights offers, emails from production companies, lots of emails from other writers, plenty of offers to attend festivals/conferences and the like, interview requests - and a reasonable amount from readers congratulating me too.

All of that in a ten-hour spell while I was at work.

I did an interview with the Guardian and the Telegraph, plus contributed to a fair few other odds and ends. All the foreign rights enquiries went to my agent. I replied to all my readers and then I started sorting through the rest.

... And that brings me up to pretty much where I am now having accepted an offer from Macmillan. I can't talk about the ins and outs of the offer - but it is a sensible forward-thinking arrangement that acknowledges what I have achieved, while also offering me opportunities I never would have been able to create for myself. They are really enthusiastic about the character too, which is far more important to me than money.

My impression of the industry through this time has been mixed to say the least.

Apart from mine, who is lovely, I have a pretty poor impression of agents. They have been rude, condescending and aggressive. When they approached me, almost none of them knew anything about me other than that I had the number one book and/or had sold a lot of copies. They weren't interested in me personally, other than the fact that I might be able to make them money. I was the number one book in October – and stayed in the top two for the best part of three months – yet it took most people to read it in a newspaper or The Bookseller to even know my name. If that’s the amount of attention agents pay to their own industry, then it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. By the time most of them contacted me, I had already been working with someone for three months.

Then I saw incompetence too. I had a 500-word email from an agent telling me how brilliant I was, then they got the name of the book drastically wrong. I've had agents get my name wrong – or not know which gender I am. Or assume I live in London. And so on.

It was incredibly unedifying. I've still got those emails and I strongly suspect the heads of the agencies those people work for would be appalled to read some of the messages sent with their name on.

If there are fellow writers reading this who have experienced any degree of success and you start getting contacted by agents, my biggest piece of advice would be to make sure they've read your book(s) - or, at the absolute least, a sample. Ask them questions and find out if they're telling the truth. If they're coming to you, they are doing that for a reason, so ensure they know their stuff. If you have something worthwhile, you'll get more interest. You need to know they back you and don’t just fancy piggybacking on your success.

That said, if you do find someone who is good, I've found my agent to be wonderful. It's too easy to say "I don't need one because I can self-publish" but that ignores the benefit of them being able to push you into places like overseas markets where you can't do things yourself. Yes, you can self-publish through KDP and iTunes – but can you easily sell foreign translation rights in markets all around the world? You might get one or two - but have you got market value and have you reached as many places as possible?

I am being translated into all sorts of languages, which is amazing. My agent has enabled me to make money from work which I have already done while I work on other things. I haven't paid her a single penny of my self-published earnings and she has never asked - it's a relationship of mutual respect. And she deals with me moaning. And she likes football.

My impression of publishers on the whole is that there are a lot of really great people committed to putting out the best product possible - but that no-one quite knows what strategy they should be taking with this new digital age.

I've read a few articles predicting the end of the traditional publishing industry and don't really agree with it. What I suspect will happen is that the industry will pick up on the type of methods people like myself use and adapt them into their own business models. I guess the key thing is how quickly they can do that

If I were them, I'd be shouting from the rooftops, "Why buy an unedited product when you can get the real deal from us?" But that means engaging directly with readers - not just other industry insiders.

I think the biggest threat doesn't actually come from people like me directly, it comes from their own mid-list authors. They will read the articles that have been written about self-published authors and think that, if a nobody like me can sell thousands of copies at 70% royalties, why can't they do it when they already have a bigger in-built audience than I started with?

It's easy to complain about Amazon and their business model - but that ignores the fact that Amazon are really good at what they do and, crucially, they understand what readers want.

Value for money is a large thing - it isn't just about price. Readers have been able to buy my three books for £6. They're not perfect products because they haven't had the benefit of a professional editing process. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean a brand-new "professional" ebook, which costs £10, is any good either. It's easy to be snobbish about these things - but it's surely about offering value for the price you charge?

I bought the Alan Partridge autobiography for my Kindle and it was and is the most-expensive digital book I have bought. But I've read it three times and, for the enjoyment I have taken from it, it is an absolute steal.

I think that is the key point. It's not about how much you can charge for something, it's about how much it is worth to the reader.

That's why I hate those free book downloads. I don't care if people do say it's a "marketing tool". True or not, it is also an author literally telling readers their product is worthless.

Value works both ways.

When digital downloads began to dominate the music industry, the record companies spent years complaining and suing customers instead of embracing. Who won that battle? Surely a preferable response is just to be better at what you do? I want the publishing industry to survive and thrive because I've been reading books since I was tiny. It's important other people get that opportunity too.

From my point of view, self-publishing is still often derided as vanity publishing. It never was for me because I have a career of my own away from this. Writing was only ever something new to try. If anything, taking the publishing deal is the vanity project because it will help me be able to put out a far more polished product.

That's something that appeals to me more than the money.

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