I’ve just read an article (good magazine, no complaints) telling writers how to break into the expanding Mind, Body & Spirit (MB&S) genre. Jan and I have published MB&S for the last fifteen years, so this news came as a pleasant surprise, considering that a). all we’ve seen is a continual slowdown, and b). the UK’s trade organ, The Bookseller magazine, recently commented that latest surveys showed MB&S to be one of the hardest-hit genres, astrology in particular being the worst off. That fits what we see, so one shouldn’t always believe the first thing one sees in the media.
What is happening, as borne out by experience at the London Book Fair earlier this year, is that self-publishing (or Personal Publishing – a better name) is now a fully accepted component of today’s publishing scene. Some mainstream publishers have started their own self-pub imprints (so have we); some sit on the fringes, watching for the top indie authors’ books to emerge, and then snap them up. (á la Fifty Shades?). Well and good for the lucky few writers, but for all the rest, it really appears that getting a traditional deal is further away than ever; likewise getting an agent – more and more of them are turning away new business. Some of them have also turned to producing self-pub books. Amazon has been in the game for some time, and may well have precipitated the turnaround.
Authors, however, should take care. There are still the current versions of vanity presses out there, charging exorbitant rates and talking up their ability to sell via their websites, “making books available world-wide”; you can do this yourself, via Amazon, it’s no big deal. Before committing to any particular self-pub services, do have a thorough browse on Google for reviews by people who have already dealt with the companies on your short list. That can be an eye opener. I spoke recently to a lovely lady who had a book published by a well-known firm, whose package rates start at about £1,000. That’s just ridiculous for a starting point, so take care.
You should also be able to select specific services that suit you, not have to adopt a rigid package deal. Nothing wrong with package deals, we do them too, but they don’t necessarily suit a more experienced writer.
Defining the job of editor is a tricky one, because it isn’t always what it seems to be. Most people consider the job of an editor to be correcting grammar and typing errors, and it can be just that; but there’s often much more to the job. To add to the confusion, there can be many names for the same thing, and the same name can refer to many things.
For instance, the person who corrects grammar and typing errors is a copy editor, a desk editor, or a proofreader, but this person will do much more than this. He will make sure that headings, sub-headings and sub-sub-headings follow a sensible and consistent pattern, and he will rationalise the crazy fonts that authors use and replace them with something that works, such as Times New Roman or Arial. He will ask the author to make captions to go with illustrations and so on. In fiction, he will make sure that something that the writer says on page 349, that connects with something that happened on page 21, makes sense. He needs to ensure that the time-line works, and that the names of the people don’t change half way through the book, and much more.
What we at Zambezi Publishing Ltd and Stellium Ltd call a “structural editor” may have different names in other publishing houses. This kind of editor has a great deal of input into the books. In non-fiction, he may change sections around, and he may go back to the author and ask for sections to be rewritten or for additions to make the topic clearer. Some sections may need to be enlarged while others need to be trimmed; the editor may be able to do it himself or he may go back to the author. Sometimes he has to ask the author to stick to the point.
I remember commissioning an author to write a “how-to” book on a particular subject, but when the manuscript came in, it contained a long discourse on the life and times of the original inventors of the system, and it kept repeating the reader’s need to be “spiritual”. Needless to say, I tossed the MS back and asked the author to write a book that showed the reader how to use the system, which is the whole point of a “how-to” book. I remember thanking my lucky stars that this particular book wasn’t needed in a rush!
When I was a child, I didn’t have the kind of family that could help me with school work and I found most teachers unhelpful, so I usually resorted to trying to figure out what was wanted from the text books that we were given, and I discovered that this wasn’t always easy. Those experts who wrote on maths and science subjects were the worst offenders in the muddled writing stakes; they would explain how to do something, then go on to give the homework exercise, but… more often than not, the exercise would bear little or no resemblance to the example or the earlier explanation. It struck me even then, that the writer had left out segments of linking material, or he had simply moved on to something else – due to boredom or because he was writing the book too quickly and too carelessly. It’s all well and good for the mathematicians who write this stuff, because they know the subject backwards, but the poor souls like me had to guess at what was needed. This kind of lazy writing should have been picked up by the editor and sent back to the author to be put right, but editors can be in too much of a hurry to bother with this kind of thing, or they can be young people who are overawed by the letters after the author’s name.
Eventually, I grew up, got married and had children, and then I started the habit of attending evening classes to improve upon the sketchy education I had received as a child. One year, I decided to have a go at maths “O Level”. Blow me down if I didn’t encounter the same problem, with a course book that was as disorganised as the stuff I had struggled with at school. Once again, I was faced with examples that were all very fine and dandy, followed by exercises that bore little relation to the examples and were sometimes on completely different topics.
Many years later, I found myself editing a “how-to” book on one of the psychic sciences. The writer was a retired maths teacher, and sure enough, he jumped from one segment to the next without proper links. He also jumped from one topic to the next just as he fancied, without following a logical pattern. Fortunately, I knew the subject well myself, so I sent the MS back to him with suggestions about how to improve it, and that way we ended up with a book that made a difficult subject nice and clear to the reader.
I learned that many of those who are experts in their subjects (especially if the subjects are mathematical or scientific) don’t know how to write, and it’s a crying shame that kids still have to put up with it. We make every effort to make sure that nothing comes out of Zambezi that leaves the reader confused or lost.
When it comes to hiring an editor for yourself, how much should you pay for this service? This is very hard to say. A publisher who is pushing out one book after another will hire a freelance copy editor to sort out a complete book for £70, but what kind of job can an editor produce for such a small amount of money?
Some selfpub firms offer a service for less than £100, and when you read what this comprises, it typically offers a good job of work on the first three chapters and a quick read-through for the rest. I guess this is useful to an author who wants to send out a synopsis and three chapters to a conventional publisher or agent, and who therefore only needs the first three chapters to be in good shape, but if the author intends to selfpub the book, what is the point of having only a small part of the book properly edited?
We sometimes use an outside editor if we’re too busy to do the work in-house. I have been quoted as much as £20 an hour for copy editing, which is ridiculous. The lady who does our work charges us around £10 per 1,000 words, and while this is on the expensive side, I know she will do a good job for us, so it’s worth it. Therefore, if you wish to selfpub a non-fiction book of 50,000 words, and as long as the manuscript doesn’t need to be rewritten, the right price for top-notch editing could be around £500. True enough, one doesn’t always need a Rolls Royce job, so a figure somewhere in the middle should be fine. Just don’t expect the world for a pittance…
Where fiction editors are concerned, an editor may only need to tweak the book a little, or he may end up having to rewrite much of it. He will certainly need to focus carefully on the story and the content of the book, as well as grammar and typing errors. We in the publishing business know that there are several much-revered and highly successful authors who owe their success to their editors. Book titles can be very important, and most of them are created by editors rather than authors. It is essential today to take into account such things as current trends in titles, clear indication of content, keywords, similarity and much more. When you are competing with millions of books, and discovery involves search engines and the Internet, titles are incredibly important. Even Jane Austin called “Pride and Prejudice” something else, and it was an editor friend who suggested the change! Interestingly, Jane Austin self-published her first few books and was only picked up by a publisher later on.
Writing or rewriting a book isn’t the job of an editor, so if you have something important to say, and you know in your heart of hearts that you can’t write, you should hire a ghostwriter. Whatever you do, you must ensure that your book is in the best possible shape, long before you send the book out to a publisher, or long before you selfpub it.
Most selfpub authors resent spending money on editing, and the result is all too obvious. If you want to see the difference between properly edited and sloppy, cheapskate books, read a few self-published ebooks – even those that tell you how to write an ebook! You’ll soon see what I mean.
Here is my second true story about self-publishing, and it occurred about ten years after the events in my previous story…
By this time, I was an established writer with a dozen or so books under my belt, and I was also on one or two committees at “The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain”. The Guild used to put on talks for its members from time to time, and on this occasion, I had been invited to join a panel of speakers. The topic, as I recall, was something like “Does Book Marketing Really Work?” There were three speakers from the upper levels of the publishing world, and each one of them gave typical business-speak talks, using cool terminology and tossing a few statistics around for good measure. I could see the audience starting to fall asleep, but then it was the turn of the “token author” – i.e. me.
I pulled a small suitcase out from behind my chair and put it on the table. The audience woke up.
Then I opened the case and pulled out a couple of copies of each of my books, and handed them to members of the audience to flip through. Some of the folk in the audience were grinning at my unusual approach and my audacity.
I told the audience that my first publisher used to send me on promotional tours of shops and radio stations, but when a larger firm gobbled them up, all that came to an end. The net result of the lack of publicity was that my sales fell by forty per cent. I continued speaking, saying that when my next book came out, I looked into the possibility of hiring a publicity firm to push it, but the two I found both quoted me £3,000, and each suggested that they could get me into ten radio stations and a dozen shops for that money. I didn’t take up their offer, but chose instead to pay my cleaning lady £50 to ring around the shops and radio stations for me, and see what she could come up with. She got me into 23 shops and fifteen radio shows!
I made sure that the publisher sent all my titles to the shops on sale or return, and I talked about the new one and others on the radio. The result of all this effort was an overall increase in sales of forty per cent. Thus, I told the audience, I had learned that publicity is worth forty per cent to me… They got my drift.
The distinguished audience included several writers who were at the top of their game. I remember Alan Yentob and Alan Plater, along with TV writers Dick Sharples and Jimmy Perry (who later became friends of mine). The “pros” laughed and asked how much my cleaner would charge them for the same job. I told them that I was now my cleaner’s agent and that our combined fee had gone back up to £3,000!
I don’t know how the subject came up, but later at that same event, someone mentioned vanity publishing, and there was a group sneer at the very mention of the subject. I chirped up and said that I had started my writing career by producing my own books, and I told the audience my story that you’ll find in my blog called “My Introduction to Self-Publishing”. I asked them if that wasn’t vanity publishing.
Alan Yentob stood up and said, “That’s not vanity publishing, Sasha love, that’s self-publishing and that’s a very different kettle of fish. Self-publishing is respectable, and as you yourself found, it can be a good way into becoming a writer.”
My response was to tell Alan that I was extremely vain about all my books, whether I’d published them myself or whether someone else had published them for me. The audience clapped and I sensed their amusement – and in some cases, their envy…
I promised my Stellium blog followers a personal story – and this is the first of two amazing tales…
About thirty-odd years ago, I had a desperately rotten office job, working for a boss who was barely sane. I also spent every Saturday giving astrology readings at a psychic centre in London. Much of my life was absolutely gutty, money was too short to mention, and I was fast reaching a point where I could no longer cope with the endless round of overwork and worry.
One Saturday, the dam broke. I can’t remember what it was that had upset me so badly that day, but whatever it was had been made even worse by heavy traffic making me late for work. I hate being late for anything, I particularly hate having to start work in a rush, and I was so clearly upset that the lady manager sent her boss over to help me. She told me he was very psychic and that he would show me a way out of my problems. The chap’s name was Zack Martin and the “reading” that he gave me was one of the weirdest I have ever encountered.
Zack sat down in front of me, looking right at me and saying nothing. Then he suddenly said, “Right!”
I waited for him to elaborate this opening salvo but nothing more came. I must have looked utterly nonplussed, because Zack then repeated the word, “Right,” once again.
By now, I was convinced that I was dealing with someone who was as crazy as my day-job boss, and I began to seriously wonder if every guy who owned his own business was certifiably crackers. As it happens, Zack wasn’t saying “Right” at all, because what he was saying was “Write!”
The mist started to clear when Zack said, “Write a booklet on something, run off a few copies and bring them here to sell, as that will be the start of a new road forward for you.”
“But how do you know I can write?” I asked.
Zack lifted an eyebrow and gave me a funny look, after which, he got up and walked off. By now, I was sure the man was completely off his trolley. However, I could see clients coming my way, so I put the strange affair aside until I had time to think it over, which I did during the long drive home; I decided that I had very little to lose by giving it a go.
Over the next few days, I wrote a small book on hand reading and I drew pictures to show the parts of the hand that relate to love and to money, and I made a cover design for it. I called my magnum opus “How to find a millionaire and marry him”. I took my sheets to a photocopy shop and spent every spare penny that I had on the job, and the next week, I took my precious copies to the psychic centre with me and put them on the corner of my work table. Each copy had cost me 75 pence to produce, so I priced each booklet at £1.50, and to my amazement, every single copy went!
Over the next few weeks, I made more copies of my palmistry booklet and I wrote several others, and they all sold out, but then the psychic centre closed, and that was that. However, the experience of writing and illustrating was good practice, so when I later came to write the set of articles that eventually became my first book (see my blog called “Blame it on the Olivetti”), it wasn’t that hard for me to do.
Self-publishing, Personal publishing or Private publishing – or as I call it, selfpub – hasn’t yet taken over from conventional publishing as far as the book trade is concerned, but for most writers, it very definitely has. It’s no longer possible to get one’s work in front of a commissioning editor, and even a sure-fire bestseller will languish unread, because nobody in the business will see it. The normal route for a postal submission these days is “author > publishing house > recycling bin”, while email submissions are clicked off by the email deletion clerk as soon as they arrive.
Agents can help, but they are fully occupied with what they already have on their plates. However, if a blog, a selfpub print or ebook takes off, human nature being what it is, some bright spark of a commissioning editor will spot it and pounce on it – as famously happened in the case of “Fifty Shades”. Then the author has the choice of leaving things as they are, or giving the book to a conventional publisher. Not all authors choose to do the latter.
A selfpub print book and/or ebook is now the only guaranteed route to getting your work “out there”. Whether it becomes a bestseller, an average seller or a not-very-good seller is in the lap of the gods, but at least it will see the light of day, so why not do it? Nowadays, Jan and I don’t produce the number of traditionally-published books that we did just a few years ago; there isn’t the market; the amount of non-fiction information on the Internet makes many paper books superfluous; and in any event, it’s common to find that a paper book is out of date the day it’s released!
So – as your normal, average independent traditional publisher (a dying breed…), we now find that we can produce a selfpub ebook for the same amount of money that one spends on a supermarket trolley’s worth of food, as long as the book doesn’t require any fancy layout or styling; for example, a novel. The addition of a printed book obviously adds to the cost – but hardly a fortune, because we only use digital (print-on-demand) for all the books we publish, whether conventional or selfpub.
Now, what about vanity publishing? Well that largely disappeared some time ago. In the old days, print machines could only – viably – produce large quantities of printed material at one time, so once the manuscript had been edited and typeset, the publisher would ask the printer to run off ten thousand copies and deliver them to the author. This was such an unusual thing for any writer to do, that in all my years as a writer and editor, I never met anybody who had done it, although I suppose there were people who may have been taken in by a smart-talking con man. Even though we’ve had no direct contact with anyone who has been taken for a ride by a vanity publisher, there are many negative reviews about some publishers. I guess the answer is, first check out reviews of whoever you intend dealing with, whether it’s about a book or buying a second-hand car.
The selfpub scene is so different now. The plain fact is that the vast majority of the information books that Jan and I buy for business use for this new and fast-moving world, are self-published. That’s how far the scales have tipped!
Selfpub has always been respectable – as you will see in my next blog (My Introduction to Self-publishing) – and now it is positively commonplace. If you fancy a good fiction read, why not treat yourself to Kim Farnell’s book “Rosie Crucial”. It’s a clever and tongue-in-cheek story, it’s selfpub and she’s done a very nice job of it. No, we didn’t publish it, and no, I’m not getting a commission for selling it, either! She does happen to write for us occasionally, that’s how I know about her novel.
The worst thing about the massive black Olivetti daisy wheel machine that circumstances had landed me with in 1981 was the amazing sum of money that the finance company demanded. The monthly payments were four times greater than our mortgage, and the entire sum added up to a touch under £5,000, which was enough to buy a small house in some areas in those days! I asked the finance company if I could stretch out the loan and reduce the monthly payments, but they didn’t want to know.
The machine was an electronic typewriter with a boxy arrangement welded to its side, containing two five and a half-inch floppy disc drives that ran the word processing program and contained the data. It also had what was called a “thin window display” that showed one line of memorised typing at a time, and a daisy wheel printer.
At that time, I had two young children, a husband, and a full-time office job along with a secondary job as part-time astrologer, palmist and Tarot reader. Now I also looked around for word processing work that I could do on the infernal machine, and in time, I worked up a good clientele for the Olivetti… but then I had a brainwave.
I couldn’t help noticing the increasing interest in the Tarot, so I decided to write some articles on the subject and sell them to a magazine. I had always read the cards intuitively, but now I had to research their true meanings, which wasn’t easy in those pre-Internet days. I scraped together everything I could find and, adding my own fund of knowledge and experience, I created a database of information on the seventy-eight cards. The task was well under way when my best friend, Anne, fell ill, so in order to cheer her up and keep her amused, I took her a bunch of grapes and the lever arch file full of written material for her to look at. Unbeknownst to me, Anne had once worked for a magazine. She looked through the file very carefully and said, “This isn’t suitable for a magazine, but it would make a cracking book.”
“A book!” I exclaimed. “Blimey Anne, I left school at fifteen, so how could someone like me write a book?”
“Well, you’re doing it now, aren’t you? And it looks all right to me,” replied Anne.
She asked me to hand her down a copy of “Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook” from her bookshelf, while explaining that I needed to make up a synopsis, some sample chapters and a few sample pages of material, and add a brief profile of myself. She suggested that I finish the book and make as good a job of it as I could, while sending out the submissions. She flicked through the Yearbook and marked half a dozen publishers that I should approach. Two of the publishers sent rejection slips and three said the book was interesting, although the subject was too specialized for them. However, one of the letters suggested that I contact the Aquarian Press, and as it happened, that was one of the names on Anne’s list.
A couple of months later, the Aquarian editor phoned me and said he would like to publish my book. I nearly died of shock! It was the last thing I had expected – although to be fair, my Tarot cards had been telling me for a while that some kind of success was on the way.
In time, the book came out under the title of “Fortune-Telling by Tarot Cards”. It was the first really accessible and usable book on the Tarot, and it coincided with a massive increase in interest in New Age topics at that time. Since then, the book has sold over a half million copies and it has been translated into a dozen languages. The editor at Aquarian, Simon Franklin, wanted to know if I could write anything else; when I told him that I was a competent astrologer and palmist, and that I could produce on those subjects and many others in the realm of divinations, he told me to get on with another book.
The first royalty payment for sales of “Fortune Telling by Tarot Cards” arrived just as I was paying the last monthly instalment to the finance company for the Olivetti. Amazingly, the royalty cheque came to just under £5,000! Many other books followed for Aquarian and for Thorsons, which was another company in the same group, and then for HarperCollins, after they took over the group towards the end of the 1980s.
Eventually, the New Age had become Old Hat, Aquarian closed for good, and while Thorsons carried on, it sank into near oblivion. Simon died of diabetes and much later, both Anne and my husband died of cancer.
Everything and everyone was sliding into the past, but then I met my current husband, Jan. We started our first publishing business, which we called Zambezi Publishing and found knowledgeable authors to write mind, body and spirit books for us. In time, I took back the rights to my old Aquarian books, and I updated and upgraded them so that we could republish them – and they are still selling!
We now have a second publishing company called Stellium Ltd that is reserved for fiction and ebooks, but through Stellium, we now also offer self-publishing services for those who want to publish any kind of book, both fiction and non-fiction. Nowadays, self-publishing has become an essential addition to a publisher’s list of services, because it has become practically impossible for a budding author to get into mainstream publishing; for many reasons – that will probably become the basis of another article – most of the bigger publishers (and agents as well) have closed their doors to new submissions.
One way and another, I have a lot to thank that old Olivetti for, haven’t I?