Mel Sherratt. A Model of Self-reliance.
Mel Sherratt is one of many people who have resorted to publishing their own e-books. This approach has been much criticised; the argument being that the need to self-publish has come about because the writer is not good enough to be taken on by agents and publishers, or their books don’t fit into the conventional wisdom of what sells. This reasoning is quickly chased up with the notion that the ability to self-publish has opened the floodgates of piles of dross being released that never should have seen the light of day. It has also been said that many self-published writers will be unable to make a living from their writing. The ‘sock puppet’, debate so prominent in publishing news in the last year, has also not helped the self-publishing cause.
However, as free samples of some or all of a writer’s e-books are now available for prospective readers to sample, then can they not make their own minds up whether they go on to buy? It also has to be pointed out that many authors published conventionally have not been able to make a living purely by writing books (as Mel confirms in the interview).
There are signs of a shift taking place, with some publishers now actively trawling the e-book releases for potential talent. There are also authors, like Mel, who have taken a dignified approach, by creating a product worthy of a reader’s attention and engaging with their readers through social networking in a professional manner.
The result of Mel’s hard and sustained labour has been rewarded with her crime novels achieving positive critical attention and record sales.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
I tried for over twelve years to get a traditional deal. I came really close on several occasions, getting as far as acquisition meetings with my novels Taunting the Dead and Somewhere to Hide, but either I was too similar to Martina Cole or Lynda la Plante or the books were cross genre and hard to market. Of course I was turned down because editors didn’t like my style of writing too – I think it is so important to gel with the right person. With each meeting, I realised that I might be getting closer but lists were getting shorter due to the climate – and indeed the digital revolution making an impact on publishing itself.
During the summer of 2011, I studied the Kindle and the self-published authors who were generating a lot of sales. For months, I watched their rankings, saw which books were selling (and weren’t), checked out sample downloads and looked at cover after cover. Then, when Taunting the Dead was enthused over by an editor I would have loved to have worked with, but was later turned down, I realised it was a good time to try for myself. Putting up Taunting the Dead, enabled me to see if readers liked my work. And most of them did! Another thing I noticed was, there were a lot of women’s fiction and crime fiction titles in the top 100 so as The Estate series combines the two, I then followed it up with the three books, so far, in the series – Somewhere to Hide, Behind a Closed Door and Fighting for Survival.
Many people refer to self-publishing as vanity publishing. What is your view on this?
Well, until recently – even still a little bit – I felt like the poor relation. People sometimes don’t take me seriously when I mention that I self-published my work and even more so when I say that most of it is only available in an electronic format – until I mention that I’ve sold in excess of 100,000 copies of my books.
I also now think that vanity publishing is very different from self-publishing. Some people choose to write a book and have it available in print form with no mention of going digital with it to try and sell it in mass quantities. They just want a book to give out to family and friends, or to sell locally. It’s personal choice and what you as an author want to do with your product.
There is an argument that making a living out of self-publishing is very difficult, so wouldn’t it be better to keep trying for the conventional route and the security of and established publisher?
There is an argument about making money out of writing full stop, don’t you think? It seems that as writers we are not allowed to even think about earning a living from it. We work towards something, often for years at a time, that we might never be paid for, but we certainly always dream of it. Who wouldn’t? I’m lucky enough to be self-sufficient because I self-published my books – it’s a business after all – just like any publishing house is a business. I treat it like a business – always striving to find different ways to market my product, make it better and also keep up to date with competition. People often tell me to put up the price of my ebooks but I’m happy to keep them at a price where new readers will find me too. It’s all about readers now.
Also publishing houses’ acquisition lists are getting smaller as everyone’s purse strings are tightened. There will always be more writers than slots, that’s a dead cert. Lots of what are known as ‘mid-list authors’ write some fantastic books that are often overlooked, either because there is less of a marketing budget to spend on them, or perhaps they don’t get a supermarket or big exposure campaign. I know several authors who have had book deals, been selling steadily, and then haven’t had contracts renewed. Yet how many times do we also hear of an author writing five or six books before they hit one that ‘makes it big’. Unfortunately, in today’s climate, there isn’t room to do this anymore. With self-publishing, the platform is the same, for all debut authors at least.
I am however still trying for a traditional deal with an established publisher. I’ve had a dream to see my books in the shops since I was in my teens and dreams don’t go away. It is time-consuming to do everything yourself, as in every business, and sometimes I’d like to just sit and write. I’d love to have an agent and a publisher that could help me to improve. I’d also like to join the Crime Writers Association but I can’t unless I get a traditional deal.
On that note, I’d like to add that I have just signed with a new agent, Madeleine Milburn, and we shall be taking out a new novel next year. This new novel is psychological suspense, mixing everything I’ve learned from Taunting the Dead and The Estate series. It hasn’t been self-published and I’ve been writing it with a traditional deal in mind. It’s very exciting at the moment – who knows if I my dream will come true at last?
Why did you choose an electronic format?
It was the only option I knew of at the time that would get my work out easily and cheaply enough for me to compete as an author no one had heard of. I wasn’t sure anyone would find my books as I hadn’t got a traditional publisher behind me. It is hard to get noticed online as there are so many authors out there trying to do the same thing.
I also chose it for its quickness too. I have published three books in The Estate series during the past six months. In the twelve months I have been self-publishing, I have published four books in my name. I wouldn’t be able to do that with a mainstream publisher yet. I think it may change in the future, but putting three books out in a series so quickly allows readers to download all three (if they like the first one!), one after the other and this may build up word of mouth. One of the best things for me is when a reader contacts me to say they have read all of my books and are waiting for the next.
How easy was it to transfer your word document to an e-book format?
With everything, it took time for me to learn the process and procedures. I could have paid someone to do it for me if I didn’t have the time myself but, because I was fortunate enough to be able to do this full time, it was important for me to do it myself. It’s been great fun and stressful at the same time – I’ve learned by my mistakes. I did have a few problems with formatting at first but I soon got over those and luckily they never went online with things such as block paragraphs, lines between each paragraph and differing fonts and sizes. Kindle Desktop Publishing (KDP) is a really easy system to use.
What strategies did you use to make yourself stand out from other self-published authors?
I’m not sure I did anything different to stand out from other self-published authors but by doing everything to the best of my ability, I was able to compete with all authors – especially when I was riding high in the Kindle charts with Taunting the Dead (which went to number three in the overall charts and stayed in the top ten for four weeks).
Good and bad manuscripts have their place though. It is so easy to upload a document onto an electronic platform that might not be ready. I look back on some of my earlier work that I sent out to agents and I cringe. I have learned, and continually learn, to write books by writing over and over. I’m writing my seventh book now and I’ve learned what I like to write – fast paced books containing fear and emotion with a level of jeopardy.
How do you ensure that your writing is of a high quality, both in terms of content and presentation (do you have a proof reader. I know you’ve mentioned an editor)?
By going over and over and over everything until I’m fairly happy with everything. I’m a typical Virgo when it comes to detail, so I aim to do everything as well as I can in the first instance. With Taunting the Dead, I didn’t hire a professional copy-editor and I regret that now, so The Estate series has been copy-edited. I also proofread it myself several times after the copy edits come back, so too does my copy-editor. Once we’re happy with it, it goes out. It might never be perfect as publishing houses have their own individual house styles, so what can look right in one book can look ‘wrong’ in another. But I do hope, even for a product that is £1.99, as most of my books are, it is the best I can do.