19 April 2011

Guest Post: A Self Publisher’s Tale by Elizabeth Currie

Elizabeth Currie
Firstly I would like to thank Tony for inviting me to contribute a guest blog to his website. After debating the relative virtues of a number of themes, we decided it might be topical and interesting for me to write about my recent journey to self publishing my first novel.

Like many journeys it has had its high points and low, its rocky and difficult places. But why self publish in the first place? That is probably the most important part of the whole process, the decision – not easily taken – to abandon (or perhaps not even look in the first place) the search for  the ‘conventional’ publishing route.

The journey for me has actually been a long one, taking easily the last five years, from when I completed my first novel (now titled ‘The Lady of Seville) and began the process of looking for a publisher.

From this vantage point I can now see how naive I really was. To me then, as an aspiring author of fiction (already with a well established pedigree in academic writing), it seemed all I had to do was my side of the ‘deal’ – come up with an interesting theme, research it well enough to make the plot and characters plausible, write it ‘engagingly’ (ie not like an academic article) and that pretty much would be that.  Well, yes, I realised that I probably wouldn’t exactly be ‘snapped up’ straight away, would have to prepare myself for a few rejections, but eventually, well ....

A depressing, disappointing and disillusioning experience  was in store for me. In those ‘days’ (we are talking about late 2006/2007 now) it was still (just about) possible to submit straight to publishers, so I tried a combination of locally-based publishers and agents. Time passed and one after the other the rejection slips came back.  I could easily write the rest of this blog detailing the subsequent weeks and months as they turned into years. I suppose in all I must have made some 25 or so submissions in total to agents/publishers for my first literary effort, an historical novel now entitled (but not then) ‘The Lady of Seville’.

Perhaps the book seemed slightly ‘specialist’, centring as it did upon a theme I knew a lot about and close to my heart, the period following the conquest of Peru by Spain in the 16th century. Although written as a dynamic adventure story and romance, with what I felt were interesting and credible characters, I could readily see that the book’s slow dreamlike beginning, and rather strange sounding story line might have caused it to be dumped straight into the slush pile.  I tried two main rounds of submissions and then withdrew the manuscript. Other life events took over and I have several other creative interests standing impatiently in the queue, awaiting their turn. So I turned my attention to painting pictures and developing my photographic portfolio for awhile instead.

Come 2009 I put all my goods back into storage again and once more took to the road – heading this time in the direction of India where I travelled alone for six weeks. I wanted to get ideas and inspiration for a completely different sort of book, one that might be more ‘mainstream’ and marketable, which is to say ‘women’s fiction’ (although not exactly ‘chick lit' – whatever that is).

I could write another whole blog upon this episode and related adventures, but in short, it produced my second novel: ‘An Indian Affair’ – a modern romance about half the length of the long historical adventure that had preceded it. No matter, however, exactly the same experience awaited me. This time I submitted directly to agents. I know you are supposed to submit to one at a time, but with an average eight week turn around period I did probably what many authors do, which is submit to around six at a time, all carefully selected from the ‘Writers and Artists Handbook’.

I made two and a half rounds of these: two at the beginning of the year (2010), about six in May; then another four or so later on in the autumn. One after another the standard rejections came back(pleasant, polite, but offering no feedback whatever). I know I am too sensitive; but I felt I simply couldn’t endure this process any more. I couldn’t see the point in carrying on banging my head against this impossible barrier as I was finding it. Something just wasn’t working. Clearly what I was writing didn’t sufficiently catch the readers’ attention to make them request a follow up.

At this point perhaps I should add that both manuscripts had been read by ‘trial readers’ and were well received; in particular the second romantic novel which had had good feedback from a selection of women well versed in the genre. By the end of the year I had finally developed my website and then made (for me) the unprecedented decision to enter the whole world of social networking (formerly so disparaged) and joined first Facebook and then Twitter. And, finally, I set up my own  personal blog (see ‘Wayward Lady’). Then I watched my world change from that erstwhile and hardly splendid isolation into something that slowly took shape as a writers’ network - and much-needed forum for exchange of advice and information.

By this time I had also joined a local writers group and slowly started to gain some of that vital insight and understanding I had lacked before.  In the mere three years since I had first looked into (then abandoned) the notion of self publishing it was clear just how much had changed. From being the old-style ‘Vanity’ press charging £100s for a mere three copies of your book and stigmatisation thereafter as a no hoper, the whole Indie, e-publishing and print-on-demand industry had taken off. New friends and advisers from the writers’ circle together with all the different links picked up from Twitter contacts allowed me to review my life and potential as a writer from a completely new perspective.

In the blog I had by then just started  I critiqued my own submissions according to the new sources I had just found.  In the ‘Slush Pile’ and ‘The Slush Pile Revisited’ posts I debated the merits of rewriting the opening pages to both my novels according to the arid formulaic criteria presented in such advice as ’25 reasons why your submission is rejected’; also with no guarantee of meeting with success.  As noted in the many web and blogging links I was now able to source, it became clear how rigid the formal publishing world had become.

I must admit it had, by then, achieved an almost revelationary quality. From feeling so blocked and thwarted, wondering if it was ever going to be worth writing another book, or whether the whole brave creative writing venture had to be written off(!) as a ‘failure,’ suddenly a way had magically opened up.  Certainly the whole process of taking your original manuscript and formatting it to make credible, professional and marketable end product (ie paperback) is a challenging one. Here I was helped by one of my new writing friends who had been through the process himself and advised me every stage of the way.

I was able to use a good original image to transform into a graphic for the cover of the book, and, a few storm-in-a-tea-cup style crises later, I had an ISBN and my first published novel. Certainly you learn en-route. There may be things I might change, or seek to improve for my new project underway (publishing the first written historical novel). Looking at the book there is nothing too startlingly out of place or dramatically ‘wrong’ to damn it as clearly ‘home made’.  It looks pretty much like any paperback book, but my own! (see An Indian Affair )

I would, however, advise anyone considering the same venture to give it all very careful consideration first.  I knew I had held out long in favour of conventional publishing, as still many people do. There are not an average of 300 weekly submissions to some, 800 per month to other Literary Agents for no reason. But increasingly it means that anything ‘unusual’, that deviates to any serious degree from standard submission ‘norms’ is unlikely to make it past the first stage.

As a further point I would also strongly recommend that any aspiring writer now have the all-necessary ‘platforms’: website, blog, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and so on. This seems now to be an absolute ‘standard’. Approaching agents with an ‘unusual’ submission and no awareness of the way the world now ‘works’ can only damn you further. And, as a self-publisher, these certainly are a sine qua non.

Well, so what if what I write is not actually ‘good enough’ in the first place? Inevitably many people might think this.  Certainly we are given to understand that there is much in the ‘slush pile’ that genuinely lacks talent; is particularly well written. There must be much too which, whilst ‘OK’, is nevertheless still lacklustre. I believe in the quality of my work; others who have read it do so too. And now at least, the world ‘out there’ can find out for itself!

Elizabeth Currie has worked as an archaeologist and anthropologist of the Americas. She  recently changed the focus of her work towards the creative arts (fine art painting and photography) and most especially writing. Based in York in the UK she has a passion for travel that has inspired many of her creative undertakings. She said that 'Ultimately, it has all served the one end of allowing me to develop my philosophy of life and the person I am; and to express it'.  

Useful web sites:

Blog site: ‘Wayward Lady’: http://elizabethjcurrie.blogspot.com/
Blog Posts documenting the decision to move into self publishing:

  • Thursday 10/02/11: ‘A Short Cut to the Slush Pile?’
  • Friday 11/02/11: ‘The Slush Pile Revisited’.
  • Wednesday 16/02/11: ‘The Raising of Spells.’

Poetry: ‘Poetry in Motion’: http://waywardladypoetry.blogspot.com/

Links to sites/blogs/advice Liz found helpful:

Follow Liz @elizajcurrie on twitter

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