This is the second in a short series of blog posts about the 2014 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.
The schedule and composition of panels and interviews at the Festival had been well thought out by using a mix and match method that provided an audience with as wide a range of topics and discussion as possible.
‘The Good Old Days?’ panel would not be the last panel to acknowledge the presence of the growth of the self-publishing industry alongside that the traditional. The discussion was about the recent developments in self-publishing and what self-publishing and traditional publishing has to offer a writer.
The panel consisted of Mark Edwards author of The Magpies and co-author with Louise Voss on several other novels. His publishing career has been a mix of traditional and self-publishing and he is a‘hybrid’ author.
Mari Hannah is traditionally published by Pan Macmillan. The first two Kate Daniels novels began life as TV scripts and both went on to win awards: the Polari First Book Prize for The Murder Wall; the Northern Writers’ Award for Settled Blood.
James Oswald is a self-published author who is now traditionally published and manages to run a 350 acre livestock farm in Scotland raising pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep.
Undaunted by being unable to initially win a tradition publishing deal Mel Sherratt set about developing a very successful self-publishing career and is now traditionally published.
Martyn Waites who began his working life as an actor, is now a traditionally published writer known for his ‘noirish’ crime novels, and acted as the panel chairman.
The initial part of the discussion brought up the subject of editing, which many self-published authors do not know is a vital part of crafting a professional piece of writing.
The panel thought that editors are very useful because they can work on several levels. The first type of edit is a structural edit, where the book is considered as a whole for sense, general inaccuracies of facts (where possible) and continuity. Then the copyedit goes into more detail, to further tidy up and spot typos. Once the bulk of this work is done the book will be proofread to spot any further typos. The author will work with the editors during the production process to respond to their queries as well as proofread their own work.
Mel Sherratt pointed out that a writer can be too close to the book to spot their mistakes. After four drafts her manuscript goes to her beta readers, who are three authors, two close friends and one police officer. Once that has been done, if the book is to be self-published, Mel will pay a copy editor to work on the manuscript. If it is traditionally published, it will go to her agent who edits it. Then the book then goes to her publisher. Mel takes the view that an editor is responsible for making a piece of writing crisp.
Martyn Waites agreed that editors are very important for self-publishers, because a book is not something you dash off and goes through as lengthy a process in editing as traditional publication.
Mark Edwards co-author Louise Voss will edit his work. He will also take reviews and reader comments into account for the next book.
James said that the great advantage of being traditionally published by a mainstream publisher is the editor who will be available to work on the book.
For Mari Hannah, the editing process starts at home, as her partner is a retired DI from Northumbria police force. So her work is checked for authenticity. After this has been done, Mari said she was very lucky to have agent who goes through the manuscript before it is edited by her publisher.
As far as Mari’s journey is concerned, her route to a traditional publisher was a long one. The first two Kate Daniels books were written as screenplays that, in the end, the BBC did not commission. She had done so much work on the plays that she did not want to waste the material. Her description of what she went through to become published, as well as the length of time it took, made it clear that getting a book written and published is hard work.
Martyn brought up the tricky issue of the price of e-books compared to paper books, because readers now expect to download a book for free or for a very low price. As yet Mel has never given any away free, but admitted that when she first self-published this was not available, but now thinks it may be a good marketing idea for some.
What came out of this discussion was that giving a book away for free is a good idea, but only when the second book is likely to be available. However, if it takes a year for another book to come out, then this strategy is a wasted marketing opportunity. There was also a suggestion that a new writer may want to price their book lower, to develop an audience for their writing. But the point was raised that people are prepared to pay more for a coffee or a greeting card and have no concept of the work that goes into producing an e-book.
Self-publishers do have much more flexibility for setting a price than traditional publishers, and the UK is also a more flexible market for price than other countries.
There is no doubt that as well as quality of writing, price does affect volumes of sales and the ‘race to the bottom’ was mentioned more than once on the issues of lowering price; which brought the panel to a brief discussion of the war of attrition and Amazon trying to bring down publishers margins, making many in the industry fear the disappearance of both tradition publishing and bookshops.
Mari felt this will not happen, because browsing online cannot compare with the physical pleasure of spending time browsing real shelves in a real bookshop. As far as the physical book is concerned, the view of the panel was that it is far from dead and sales are healthy. James said he sells twice as many paperbacks as e-books.
On the issue of time-consuming marketing, no magic solution was offered, but Mark did say that while he worked in his full time job as marketing director, he would come home, then spend three hours on promotion and blogging to make people aware of his books. However because of the success of his books, Amazon now do take an active role in promotion. However he was surprised, on being traditional published, how little marketing traditional publishers did for his book and that he and Louise had to do quite a bit themselves. Mel has built up a considerable following through social media and is of the opinion that if anyone has a good book, then word of mouth is a very good way of promotion.
Martyn asked the panel at what point did they consider themselves a writer? This was a good question, because it must haunt most people who are writing to be published. Mark said he used to tell everyone when he was in his twenties that he was an aspiring writer, but after so many rejections he stopped saying it. Only when Catch of Death took off did he feel he could call himself a writer, particularly when he felt validated by acceptance from a traditional publisher. James felt he could call himself a writer from the moment he began writing. His view is that as long as you write you are a writer and you become an author when your income from writing can sustain you.
Having just achieved a book deal, Mel still cannot believe she is a writer and said that every book gets better because the more she writes, the more she learns. She felt the best thing about writing is the way you evolve.
The spectre of sock puppets rose momentarily as David Mark asked how the panel felt about the sly techniques of leaving positive reviews. James said it does not work, because although you may give yourself glowing reviews, other people may not. So if the book is good it will get good reviews. Mari agreed with this and also made the valid point that if you are not yourself on social media then you are being dishonest (by misleading readers). Mel said a book will disappear if it is not good, because there are now so many books out there for readers to choose from. She also acknowledged Mari’s support of her through her progression to traditional publishing and how helpful it is for authors to be supportive of one another, which does sound a very positive way for a writer to reach out to their audience. The panel did point out that some reviews may not look credible and although you may be able to ask your friend to leave reviews, Mark’s experience was that his friend gave him three stars. Mark felt that if you see only see five star reviews for a book then be suspicious.
On the whole, the view of the panel was that any type of publishing venture is hard work; this includes the writing, production of the book (hardcopy and e-book) as well as generating your audience when your work is out there. It is also important to have the book properly edited and proofread, because it is difficult to see the book as a whole once you have been immersed in it. Most importantly of all respect your readers and support your fellow writers.