Sunday, 7 October 2012

How I came to self-publish an eBook

A few years ago it occurred to me that no-one had used the idea of someone travelling back in time in order to attempt to kill Hitler as the basis for a novel. I thought this rather surprising as it seemed like such an obvious idea and one which, if done well, could easily capture people’s imagination and do well commercially. I stored the idea away in my brain and kept it to myself.
Over the following couple of years I would occasionally give the idea further thought, and I began to see possible reasons for the non-existence of such a novel; it could involve a massive amount of research, for example, and also there were so many different directions in which the story could potentially go, it could be difficult to keep control of it. However, eventually I began to see a way in which the story could work and avoid some of these difficulties – but at this point I had still not convinced myself to commit to the task of actually writing the damn thing.
I’ve been writing songs for many years and I think I eventually got quite good at it but, although when I was at school I had written some short stories which seemed to impress the teacher, I was really quite in awe of novelists. I’ve been working in bookshops for the last few years though, and often I would pick up a bestseller, read the first couple of pages, and put it back down with disgust, thinking, “I could do better than that!” By the time of August 2010, my job was driving me mad (although this was for other reasons than the quality of the books we sold!), I was rapidly approaching 40, and I worked out I had enough savings not to work for six months or so. These savings had been dwindling anyway on a bookseller’s wages so, feeling that this may be the last time I would have a chance to do something rash, I handed my notice in and, four weeks later, I was jobless.
Putting myself in such a situation provided good motivation for writing the book, as did the fact that I told everyone what I was doing (although I refused to tell anyone what it was about). I was damned if I was going to spend six months watching daytime TV and make excuses at the end of it – I would get this book written if it killed me!
I had little more than a title, The Assassination Of Adolf Hitler, and what might be called the “arc” of the story when I began. I forced myself to write a thousand words a day. On a good day this would take me an hour and a half, an average day three hours, and a bad day five or six hours or more. On the whole, I was pretty good at achieving my daily goal, but there were days when other commitments made it impossible to find the time, or when I became stuck on a certain point and had to go to the British Library to do some research.
After about three months, I’d reached the end of the story and had written around 66, 000 words. This would have made a rather short novel, but I was not finished yet. I began to go back through the book and add a little flesh to the bones. Certain parts needed some elaboration, and there was still more research to be done in order to make the story convincing enough for the reader to suspend their disbelief. I took a couple of quick trips abroad as parts of the novel were set in places I had never been. This proved to be worthwhile and certainly prevented me making what could have been some embarrassing mistakes. Another three months after I’d come to the end of the story and had constantly been over it again and again and again, rewriting probably every sentence at least once, some of them probably twenty times, I finally felt I had a finished piece of work (which came in at around 81, 000 words).
I gave the manuscript to a friend of mine whose judgement I trusted and waited for the verdict. A week later we met up and he gave me plenty of feedback, both negative and positive. He made some good points and I did some more rewriting. The book got longer again and when I was finished it had reached 86, 000 words – around the average length for a novel.
I began to submit it to agents. I decided that I would only send it those who accepted email submissions. There were two reasons for this: one was that, yes, it was easier for me; the other reason was that I could see no reason why a literary agent in this day and age should prefer to be sent a pile of paper. Such agencies, I thought, must be stuck in the past – which is surely not what you would want from an agent. This approach may have been a mistake; perhaps a lot of other budding authors had used the same reasoning, and my chances may have been better if I had have sent the book to those who still preferred paper. Anyway, I tried about ten or eleven agents, but received only a standard rejection letter from each. Some of them took three months to reply; one of them rejected me within 24 hours! Apparently, it’s very bad etiquette to submit to lots of agents at the same time – supposedly they talk to each other and get annoyed about this. So I submitted to three at a time and let each of them know that I was submitting to a couple of others as well.
Finding that it had taken months and months of waiting just to receive around ten standard rejections, I began to think seriously about self-publishing the novel as an eBook. Perhaps I should have been more persistent – after all, Kathryn Stockett was apparently rejected by 61 agents before she found a taker for The Help, one of the biggest selling books of recent years. However, given the nature of the story, I was worried that someone else might get in there first – shortly after I had finished writing the book, there had been a Doctor Who episode called Let’s Kill Hitler and a Stephen King novel about someone travelling back in time in order to prevent the assassination of Kennedy. So partly for this reason, I did not feel I could afford to wait years trying to find a publisher.
I had heard about some authors finding considerable success from self-publishing eBooks, but I don’t know whether these are one-off flukes, whether these authors were somehow very good at tapping into the public consciousness, or whether they were just good at doing self-promotion (and perhaps being a bit sneaky with it). Anyway, this is the road I have now gone down.
I got my friend Frances Barry to design a cover for the book. Frankie, as I know her, has had a number of charming books for young children published, so may not seem an obvious candidate for this particular job, but when I saw her cover design for a CD by a band called Milk Kan, it was clear to me that she was not just good at drawing cute ducks.
I decided to use a company called BookBaby to distribute the book; of course, this cost me a little bit of money, but it probably saved me considerable faffing about. Perhaps it was not necessary, as it seems easy to publish directly on Amazon, which is where the vast majority of eBook purchases are made. But I did want my book to be available to those who own a Nook or Kobo as well. Originally I wanted to make the book available for free for a limited time, but it seems that Amazon only allow you to do this if you publish directly with them. So I’ve made it as cheap as possible (77p!) to start off with, although I intend to put the price up a bit once I’ve received some good reviews. As an unknown author, though, I still feel that I should keep the price fairly low, so I don’t think I’ll make it more than £2.99.
When the book went on sale, I texted, emailed and Facebooked just about everyone I know, and I must say that the response has been great. Even people who have not got a Kindle have been buying it and reading it on their computers or their phones. Apparently, it will be 45 – 60 days before I get any actual sales figures, so all I have to go on for now is the Amazon sales ranking. The highest I saw this figure go to was about 4, 000 the weekend it went on sale and I was emailing everyone about it. Since then I’ve seen it slip it down to around 65, 000, but when I checked today it stood at about 29, 000. These figures do not sound very impressive and I doubt whether, at the moment, the book has reached many people outside my circle of friends. Whether it will eventually do so or not I have absolutely no idea, but those who have read or are reading it do genuinely seem to be enjoying it.
Of course, what I’m really hoping is that the book will take off on a large scale and publishers will come beating down my door, enabling me to give up the day job and write full time. But I also know that it’s a very crowded marketplace out there and my chances are probably slim. It won’t matter how good my book is if no-one knows about it and, while I might be willing to spend a bit of money on advertising, I cannot afford to throw money away on dubious schemes which may or may not work.
As for the book itself, I think it has its flaws but I did the best job I could with it and, for the most part, greatly enjoyed writing it. It’s unapologetically my attempt to write a bestseller rather than a literary masterpiece. My main goal was to keep the reader hooked – although I think I have managed to sneak in some history, some food for thought, and maybe even a little art, I hope that this has never been at the expense of the story.
If any of this has piqued your interest, you can read the beginning of the book for free and maybe even buy it here:

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