In the run-up to the Publishing Day‘s closing date (30th April!), we’ll be interviewing the experts on the panel. This week we’re chatting to Author and Self Publishing Expert David Gaughran.
David Gaughran is Irish and lives in Dublin, where it rains every day and conversation is a sport. He is the author of the historical adventures Liberty Boy, Mercenary, and A Storm Hits Valparaiso, and has helped thousands of authors to self-publish their work via his workshops, blog, and two popular writers’ books: Let’s Get Digital & Let’s Get Visible. He has been featured in the Telegraph, the Irish Times, the Guardian, the Irish Examiner, the Sunday Times, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Forbes, Mashable, New York Observer, Newsweek Polska, il Giornale, The Star Malaysia, and, most pleasingly, the Journal for Maritime Research.
How did you get into self-publishing?
I had been querying agents for 18 months with gradually less catastrophic failure when I finally had an agent who wished to represent me and shop my first novel to NYC publishers. I had it made! Then he dropped me like a hot potato a few weeks later. I was pretty despondent, as you might imagine, and started looking at alternatives. Starting thinking about quitting altogether, in fact.
This was early 2011 and I really was very close to walking away from writing. But then I heard about Amanda Hocking getting a $2m advance off the back of self-publishing success, and Barry Eisler turning down half a million dollars to self-publish instead, and then decided to take a closer look at that option myself. Turned out things had changed quite a bit since the vanity days, and then took the plunge myself and never looked back. In fact, an agent approached me after my first little bit of success and I got to write my own rejection letter this time. That was quite fun, I must admit.
What advice can you give for those looking to self-publish?
Here’s the mistake most people make: they skimp on editing and covers, they don’t publish professionally, they wonder why their book isn’t selling, and then they spend big on an ill-advised marketing package which doesn’t do the business for them. The basics are so important. You have to nail that cover. The editing should be pro-level, not your English teacher friend. The presentation must be immaculate. That’s all doable stuff, but people get into an awful hurry at this point and just fling the book out the door. Take a moment. You’ve spent so long writing this, doesn’t the book deserve a little careful prep before you send it out into the world?
The other big mistake that newcomers to self-publishing make is to go to one of these companies that promise to take care of everything for you. Don’t. Do. This. At best you will be published in a sub-standard way that will harm your ability to reach readers and build an audience. More likely you will be scammed for thousands and have little to show for it. It’s easier, cheaper, and more effective to do it yourself – and by that I mean outsource each task to trained professionals (i.e. editors and designers). Please don’t do your own cover. The world is begging you.
How do the stories you tell develop through your writing process?
Like anything, I’m improving with experience, and also learning that talent doesn’t mean squat compared to sweat. I used to be an instinctual writer, and now I’m a little more deliberate. I used to mostly be a pantser, and now I’m more of a plotter. Not saying one is better than the other, but this way is most certainly working better for me. I used to spend a lot of time staring at a blank page. Now I more-or-less know what I’m going to be writing in each session, and they are much more productive as a result. More importantly, I’m finding my work has more resonance now that I try and map out the emotional journey I want the reader to go on in advance of starting the book. Seriously, read “Take Off Your Pants” by Libbie Hawker if you want to improve that aspect of your writing. It’s the best plotting book I’ve ever read. One of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. Even for pantsers!
Why do you prefer digital over print publishing?
All the reasons. But let’s look at this from the reader perspective first. Readers buy e-books from four or five different places, instead of a hundred thousand different places. Most readers get e-book recommendations from a handful of websites, instead of tens of thousands of different newspapers and magazines. What does that mean for us? Well, it’s much easier and cheaper to both publish digitally and to reach e-book readers with our marketing messages. I do print publishing. Most self-publishers do also. I’m even in bookstores, have done bookstore events, I’ve done a signing at the London Book Fair, and have had the pleasure of being in national newspapers. That’s all good fun, but I don’t focus on selling print books. It’s hard to get nationwide bookstore distribution (however you publish). It’s expensive to market to print buyers (however you publish). Self-publishers focus on e-books as a result, and most of our sales are digital. So it’s not necessarily that I prefer one over the other. I’ll go where the readers are, and where the easier pathways to readers are. If books in pill form become the next big thing, I’ll happily focus on that instead. A reader is a reader.
But to finally circle back and answer the actual question, digital publishing is faster, cheaper, and more forgiving too. I can go from MS to published e-book in a matter of weeks. Days if it’s already edited. The print process takes much longer – maybe a couple of years longer via a publisher. Print is a physical object that needs to be manufactured and shipped and stored (and returned). The logistics are messy and costly. It’s a pain, to be honest, as much as love physical books as an object. Also, if I make an error, or want to change some of my end-matter to include a new release or something like that, you just can’t do it with a print edition unless you start from scratch again. With an e-book, it’s simple.
What can you do as a self-published author that other writers can’t with publishing houses?
I’m trying not to be catty and say “make money.” More seriously though, we get up to 70% on e-book sales. The rates that publishers pay authors are dreadful. Best case scenario is usually 17.5% (14.9% after the agent’s cut), and the publisher gets a giant 52.5%. That’s indefensible. Especially when advances are dwindling.
Money aside, I have total control. This is great! I get to decide my cover, my price, my launch date and strategy. I don’t have a publisher pressuring me to go on some time-wasting blog tour – which is just busy work to keep the author off their back and to make it look like they are doing something. My books look just as good as anything coming from the publishers (we actually outsource to the same people!), and I pay for that with a flat fee which I generally recoup right after publishing – instead of signing my rights away for a long period, possibly forever. I also keep all my movie rights, foreign rights, TV rights, and all that other stuff that publishers are now trying to grab – and did option one of my books to an LA movie producer too, so that can still happen if you self-publish.
The most important thing, though, is that by self-publishing I’m guaranteeing that someone who cares about the book will be in control for the lifetime of the book. I’ve seen many writer friends sign nice deals with great editors, and the experience turning sour over the short/medium-term. That’s the normal trajectory of a publisher-author relationship, it seems. Publishers will usually care about your book for the first few months after publication. They are not normally going to be running marketing campaigns a year down the line. But I can do that because I still own the rights (and still care).
I could talk forever about this, but being the captain of your own ship is great. If I want to keep writing historical adventures, I can. If I want to take a break and write some non-fiction or short stores, I can do that too. No one is pressuring me to write a certain way, or to stick with a certain series. I make all of my own career decisions, usually after hashing things out with a circle of writer friends.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Find out more about Florence Writers’ Publishing Day.
Interview with thanks to Shelley T Martin.