A Dip in the Self Publishing Pool

Posted filed under Experience.
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I should say right from the start that the ebook revolution has been wonderful for me as an author. I’ve made more money out of my self-published ebooks than any of my twenty-plus children’s books that have been conventionally published, have enjoyed the process enormously and gained a new, and entirely unexpected, audience. And yet despite this modest success, I’ll be looking for an agent and a traditional publisher for my next book.

Ten years ago, I had the idea for a trilogy of stories aimed at young teens, set in a large English country house through three generations and featuring the servants who lived and worked there. My first heroine would be a fifteen-year-old housemaid in 1890 (country house parties, Edwardian decadence, shadow of the workhouse); her daughter a reluctant kitchen maid in 1914 (male servants leaving for war, the house becoming a hospital, women taking on men’s work); her granddaughter would arrive at the house in the spring of 1939 (impending war, the house on hard times, Jewish children fleeing Germany). And so the ‘Swallowcliffe Hall‘ series was born, before Downton Abbey was even a twinkle in Julian Fellowes’ eye. An editor signed me up on the strength of three synopses and a few chapters and everyone seemed filled with enthusiasm. I wrote the three books over the next three years, but by the time the second had been published, it was obvious they weren’t going to be bestsellers. My editor went on maternity leave, the covers were dreary, there were hardly any foreign rights deals, reviews or promotions from the bookshop chains. Even my bookmarks had typos.

When Downton Abbey became such a success a few years later, I suggested reissuing the books with more enticing covers, but the proposal was vetoed by the publishers because ‘children don’t watch Downton’. I knew, though, that I would spontaneously combust if I had to watch another episode without doing something for my poor languishing stories. So I got the rights back, because hardly any copies had been sold over the last few royalty periods, and set about turning them into ebooks. This was in 2011 and my publishers seemed unaware of the potential of digital rights; they hadn’t previously released the stories in ebook format and had no plans to do so in the future. To be fair, children aren’t such great consumers of ebooks, and the trend for adults reading YA fiction hadn’t reached its peak.

My first formatting steps were tentative but, encouraged by guidance and enthusiasm from fellow children’s authors (thank you, Sue Price and Katherine Roberts), I persevered. The timing was perfect: suddenly there were thousands of readers, particularly in America, all desperate for English nostalgia; thanks to Kindle, I could reach them. Michael Boxwell’s ‘Make an Ebook‘ explained the mysteries of metatags, so I shamelessly added Downton Abbey tags wherever I could.

I had no idea what to expect, but sales of the ebooks began to build, helped by a well-timed paid promotion through Kindle Nation Daily. Several factors were on my side, although I didn’t fully realise that at the time. My books had already gone through the editing process, and the original printed versions (under different titles) had attracted reviews on Amazon which I was able to link to the ebook versions. I’d worked as an editor in children’s publishing myself, so had some experience of commissioning covers and an idea of the importance of marketing. My stories were ready to go – they just had to be formatted. Although they had first been published for children, they were carefully researched and historically accurate, and adult readers seem to love them too. Ebooks aren’t limited to a particular shelf in a bookshop; they can be enjoyed by anyone who comes across them and likes the look of the free sample. An author no longer has to worry whether bookshops will be – understandably – reluctant to take subsequent titles in a series if the first has been slow to sell.

Polly's Story Eugenie's Story Grace's Story Isobel's Story

To date, I’ve sold over 40,000 copies across the series, roughly two books in the US to every one in the UK. I have readers from Alabama to Alaska and, although the Downton Abbey effect has probably peaked, I’m still getting new reviews and daily sales. One woman said these were the books she’d enjoyed most on her Kindle so far. She gave me five stars! And Wuthering Heights one! (OK, that is a bit odd, but I’m not complaining.) I’ve been able to control pricing and check sales on a daily basis. Because I receive 70% of the cover price, I’ve been able to keep it low and still earn twice as much as I did from my print book royalties. Equally important, self-publishing made me feel like an author again. I wrote and released another story in the series, aimed less specifically at children – ‘Eugenie’s Story, told from the ‘upstairs’ side of the house – and a teen ghost romance. And yet…

It can be lonely, thrashing about in the self-publishing pool. I realised that ‘Eugenie’s Story’ was different from the other Swallowcliffe Hall books: less straightforward, with a comically unreliable narrator. I seemed to be heading in a new direction and wasn’t sure whether to continue. And if I carried on self-publishing, who was to say whether my books were any good or not? By the time sales declined, I might be too far off course. So I trod water for a while, beginning and abandoning a Bridget-Jones-hits-the-menopause type comic novel, before surrendering to a need for structure and advice. I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel for adults, written for a Creative Writing MA at City University under the guidance of tutors and external markers. I’m not going to self-publish it because I want someone to help make the book as good as it can be, telling me to keep working at this aspect or that, and telling me finally when to stop tinkering: a disinterested arbiter who also knows the publishing world and can offer me impartial advice. And when the novel’s ready, I don’t want to be the only one announcing my brilliance to the world. It feels better when someone else has a hand on the marketing tiller.

I love the control that self-publishing brings: being able to check sales figures daily, to adjust prices instantly and see the effect that has on sales. And I love my beautiful and personal new covers, with a photograph of my great-uncle Norman featured on ‘Grace’s Story‘ and my mother on ‘Isobel’s‘. Self publishing has given a new lease of life to a series that would otherwise have sunk without trace. For my next project, though, it’s time to call in the professionals. I want someone else to judge whether my writing makes the grade before it goes out into the world – just because you can self-publish, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Jennie Walters worked as an editor in children’s publishing for several years before starting to write her own books. Her 'Swallowcliffe Hall' series of historical novels was first published in the UK by Simon and Schuster in 2005, and has sold widely across the world since being self-published in ebook format in 2011. She has just completed the first draft of a full-length novel set in the 1940s for the MA in Creative Writing at City University, and lives in London with her husband, a big dog and a small cat. Jennie's Website