I was innocently checking my emails last night: it was a Thursday, so there are always quite a few Friday Flash Fiction submissions to process. Once I’d dealt with those, I turned to the emails that are directed to my “writer” persona.
Right at the top was a blog notification from Caron Allen, a crime mystery writer I’ve only met once, but with whom I’ve shared a bit of correspondence. On this occasion, Caron’s blog – which comes highly recommended – reminisced over the (almost) ten years since the publication of her first novel, Criss Cross.
She’s actually slightly newer to the novel-writing process then I am – the “10th Anniversary Edition” of Four Old Geezers and a Valkyrie came out at the start of 2022. Much of her article relates how she tried, and failed, to land a conventional publisher, and ended up turning to self-publishing. As I’ve touched in other places, it’s quite possible that might have been Caron’s lucky break. Very, very few writers make any money from their work; all most should aim for is: to keep expenses to a minimum and not lose money; gain a bit of satisfaction; and most of all, enjoy those special moments when a reader tells you that they “found your book wonderful”. It does happen.
By those measures, I suspect Caron’s done quite well. Her books are cleverly pitched at readers who looking for old-fashioned escapist crime mysteries; the messy, gritty detail of death don’t feature much. As such, they’re slightly out of fashion, but readers like them – if that makes the slightest sense.
So I turned to the next email, which was from a company that claims to assist authors self-publish. I won’t mention the firm’s name, although I’m not sure it really deserves anonymity. Coincidentally, this one was also about self-publishing, and advertising a 10-week online Zoom course. I’ll leave you to study it for yourself.
In case you hadn’t bothered to do the calculation, that’s also an EXTRA £440 they charge for splitting the payment across six months. And if you look at the application form itself, you have to tick a box agreeing that “you might need to spend extra money on outsourcing other assets like book covers, editorial work, website building.” It’s a blank cheque.
As the drug campaigns say, just say no.
PS – If you want to save £2499.01, why not try my own Self-Publishing: The Total Beginner’s Guide? Cheapest of all here at this link.
*Also an excellent opportunity for shameless self-promotion.
I’m not proud of everything of everything I’ve ever written. I like some of my material, even quite a lot of it, but I recognise that it’s not to everyone’s taste. When you dabble in any of the arts – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, novels, anything at all – you have to get used to the odd kicking. People read your work and feel entirely qualified to tell that you’ve written a lot of tosh. A nephew once borrowed one of my novels and then wrote back to point out the areas where I clearly “wasn’t a professional author”. He got quite short shrift, but generally I ignore dross. You develop a thick skin as a writer.
But even if I recognise that some of my writing isn’t very inspiring sometimes, I’m proud of my staying power. I might write a trashy novel, but I’ll finish the entire trashy novel right through to the bitter end. As a result, I have a couple of truly atrocious manuscripts that spend most of their time buried deep in a lead box many feet underground in case they should accidentally escape. Just occasionally, though, I have a little fun with them.
For I have an alter ego. I can’t tell you what that alter ego’s name is, but my other me could be either male, female or gender-fluid. Let’s for the moment give my other me the name ‘Chris’, and you’ll get the idea. Let’s go the whole hog and call me ‘Chris Smith’. What ‘Chris Smith’ then occasionally does is submit one of these awful (but complete) manuscripts to a vanity publisher, to see what happens.
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand what a vanity publisher is, and that, although there are superficial similarities, it’s actually the opposite of self-publishing. Self-publishing authors pay all the costs of producing a book – editing, cover design, printing and so on – but then the books themselves belong to the author. So, too, do the rights to the book, which means that if Steven Spielberg wants to turn your book into a blockbuster movie, you can sell him the rights and earn money that way, too.
Vanity publishing firms offer to publish your book for you. They look like ordinary publishing firms, but they ask you to “contribute” part of the production cost. In fact, they generally ask you to provide a very large part of the production costs, something like 100% perhaps. Just in case the book’s any good, the vanity publishing firm retains the rights to your book, and the books are theirs, too. They’ll be nice to you, though; they’ll give the author a 40% discount on their own book. Get the idea? Vanity publishers are the spawn of the devil.
There are black lists (they’re known as “red lists” in the trade) of vanity publishing firms, but most people who write books will have heard of at least one of them. For fear of legal nasties, let’s not name them, but instead we’ll invent a firm which we’ll call Morris MacDoggie. So, just to see what would happen, I sent one of my worst manuscripts (in a perverse way I’m rather proud of them) to MacDoggie’s “for consideration”.
What then happened was entirely predictable. I received a letter from MacDoggie’s which stated:
Your manuscript was brought to our attention at the latest editorial board meeting where we discussed its potential, and the possibility of it being published. Having read all the reports and taken note of the editors’ opinions, I can confidently state that your work was a captivating and enthralling story that will resonate with readers from beginning to end as they follow the protagonists on a journey that will define their relationship.This book will also explore the many issues that are comparable to social issues today.
This assessment of my manuscript, i.e. “captivating and enthralling”, is risible: the novel is, in fact, dreadful.
But the kicker in the response lay not in the response letter, but in the accompanying “contract offer”. Sure, they were offering to publish my book, but only if I myself made a “contribution” of $3,100 (I sent it to the US office). Morris MacDoggie would keep the rights, including any sell-on rights should anyone wish to film the thing, for goodness’ sake, and they get to set the cover price. Morris MacDoggie could also instruct me to do any promotion of the book at their request.
For that, I would get 25% of the sale price of each book. I would receive 20 complimentary copies of my own terrible book, but thereafter I’d have to pay the same price as any bookshop – in other words, I’d get a 40% discount.
That “25%” figure is actually suspiciously high. Normally, commercial authors might reasonably expect around 10% of the sale price. So I’m guessing that the book would only be printed on demand: in other words, it wouldn’t exist unless someone specifically asked for it – such as the author. When you looked at the contract more closely, they didn’t commit to distributing the book at all. And if a publisher holds the rights but effectively stops anyone else from buying your book, I’d say they’re not publishing your book at all. Believe it or not, Morris MacDoggie wanted first refusal on all my future writing as well.
Of course I turned the “offer” down. To be fair, sending dross manuscripts to firms like Morris MacDoggie is a bit like bear-baiting, and should probably be outlawed. Perhaps I ought to apologise, but these firms are sitting like hungry alligators (or sharks, if you prefer) waiting to eat up vulnerable authors like you and me. Fall into the clutches of one of these predators and say goodbye forever to your cherished book.
PS – If you’re curious, the manuscript in question was called “In Your Shoes“, and featured a couple of teachers who take drugs at a party one night and end up in each others’ bodies. Slowly, they have to learn to live with the different expectations placed on men and women in society. Although I made it to the end, it just proved too difficult to make it work well, at least for me. Aware of what happens in a school, I got too bogged down with trying to stop them being discovered. The intimate scenes, including the sex scenes, were probably the best bits.
Back in 2020, I published my first non-fiction book, Self-Publishing, The Total Beginner’s Guide. It’s sold OK, as well it should since it costs just £0.99 as an ebook if you buy it from my own website, or £1.49 if you allow Amazon to sell it to you. (There is a print version, too, but who’s going to pay ten times that?)
The book tries to cover all the aspects of publishing that a self-publisher might need to be aware if, but there’s always something else that you might not be expecting. When it came to my first full-length crime novel, TheMidnightVisitor, published on 1st March 2022, I was hit by hay-maker of seismic proportions.
It’s a waste of time trying to launch a book in the week that Putin’s Russia is invading Europe. After all, who’s thinking about gentle crime fiction just now? Who really wants to do anything other than either watch the news anxiously or hide in a cupboard and just wait for it all to be over?
Don’t get me wrong. If I could give up everything from The Midnight Visitor and end the suffering in Ukraine instead, I’d do it in a flash. Somehow, though, I don’t think Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin would be much influenced by the offer.
So it looks as if the best I can do is to “launch” the book officially at some point in the future. In the meantime, though, it’s available to buy in bookshops, on Amazon, or – best of all, since I make the most money – from my own website. There’s lots of free stuff there, too. Ukrainians can have the ebook for free.
I suppose it’s good to be reminded of the two great truths of publishing. First, wars are more important than any individual book. And second, there’s always the next time.
2020 marked the publication of the first dip of my toes into the sea of non-fiction with the launch of Self-Publishing – The Total Beginner’s Guide, published by Dean Park Press, the new Comely Bank Publishing imprint.
There are lots of books about self-publishing, most of which cover some aspect or other, or perhaps a range of them. The Total Beginner’s Guide doesn’t mess about – it aims to cover everything: writing, editing, covers, typesetting, producing print and ebook copies, marketing, accounting and even dealing with bad bill payers.
The book doesn’t really try to tell you how to make a fortune. Instead, it aims to help you not lose one while still chasing your dream of writing a Booker Prizewinner.
The paperback is priced at £9.99, but the real steal here is the ebook, which is deliberately priced at just £0.99. Or at least it is if you look in the right place, which is on my author website at https://www.lawrie.info/buy-the-self-publishing-guide1.html. Buying from Amazon costs you 50 pence more, thank you very much, and by the way I receive just 23p from each Amazon sale, as opposed to “most of it” via my own website. (I use an ebook download service called Gumroad to sell my ebooks.)
Self-Publishing – The Total Beginner’s Guide, by Gordon Lawrie, Dean Park Press, 366pp, ISBN 978-1912365-13-5 from all good bookshops, online and from my own website using the link above.