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.
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?
This article is mainly aimed at the UK copyright situation. It has to be country-specific, as there are a few differences between the UK and, say, the USA. Other countries may vary even more widely, so I won’t even try to discuss their copyright jungle. I’m sure that most countries, and certainly the UK and the USA, have their copyright laws available online – search Google for your specific query. If you can’t find what you need, please feel free to ask me. Likewise, if you have anything to add, please do.
Some UK journals and magazines tell their contributing authors that they cannot re-use their work anywhere else, without having a signed agreement to this effect, and this includes material that has already appeared in such magazines in the past. This is not necessarily the case, unless you specifically signed a piece of paper saying that you’re giving up all rights to your work.
The copyright for everything that you write automatically belongs to you as soon as it’s published, unless:
- You agree in writing to give up the copyright. This sometimes happens with “packager-type” book publishers, where you give up copyright in exchange for a large (hopefully…), one-off payment.
- You normally licence your work to a book publisher, so that you keep the copyright, but allow them to use the work in various, stated ways. The publisher will usually want the exclusive right to use the work for the duration agreed and within the terms of the contract.
- A magazine editor commissions you to write an article, pays you and takes “first serial rights”. This can be a complex matter, and you may have to pay the magazine a royalty if you wish to re-use the article somewhere else and receive a second fee from it. This is similar to the sale of book or film rights. Check your agreement to discover exactly what you are agreeing to beforehand, and stick to the terms of the contract afterwards. With a magazine, you stand little chance of getting them to amend the agreement.
- You contribute a piece that becomes part of something else with a variety of contributors and/or a large input by the magazine’s sub-editor.
- You sign an agreement giving up all your rights.
In some cases, a magazine may print a note in one or all of its issues to the effect that all contributors automatically give up their copyright to their work. This is not legal or binding on you, unless your agreement with them says so. Having said this, you may wish to cover yourself by adding a note to any work that you submit, stating that the copyright of the work remains with you. Thereafter, you can put the article on your own website or use it for something else if you so wish, as long as you honour the rest of the agreement.
The general rule about copyright is that you should never give it up unnecessarily, and certainly never do so where you are writing something out of the goodness of your heart and for no fee.
As far as work that you have done in the past is concerned, barring previous agreements that may still be in force, the copyright stays in your hands, because laws don’t retroactively imperil you in any democratic country.
Please don’t take the above information as gospel; things can change swiftly. In fact, the UK government is currently reviewing copyright legislation with a view to making content more accessible. I can only hope that they take on board the views of our Publishers’ Association and author bodies such as the Society of Authors, because it’s already hard enough to make money from writing today.
This is my first ever blog. It’ll be an interesting change from my usual day job, which involves either writing a book, or publishing other authors’ books.
I’m going to start with a range of tips about writing in general, as my husband Jan and I have found over the years that there are lots of people who have an interesting book inside, but not enough experience in getting it out in a way that’s good enough for distribution and sale to the public at large.
What I would love to see is feedback from you, about what I’ve written here, as well as what you’d like me to discuss.
I’ll be covering most forms of writing, and different methods of publishing your work, as there is so much available today in the writing and publishing game that one can hardly keep up with developments. There is a vast amount of freedom of choice that never existed when I started writing; whether you consider traditional publishing, or a self-publishing project.
Another track I’ll touch on from time to time will be the pitfalls that one needs to avoid. Vanity publishing still exists, as well as exorbitant charges that really rip off unsuspecting people.
There’s no question about it, whatever you do, you have to keep your eyes open all the time nowadays. Luckily, apart from blogs like this one, there is Google always to hand, and I would always recommend that you search for reviews or other information about whatever organisation you may wish to deal with.
You’ll even find me talking about the ever-increasing complexity of software, like modern word processors, and MS Word in particular. For a start, I really feel that Microsoft is missing s trick by not producing a cut-down version of MS Office for the average, non-corporate user, who doesn’t need (or understand!) their Rolls Royce equivalent of office products. I notice this time and again, for example, when processing a book for digital publication, e.g. for Kindle. All the recommendations, wherever you look, say the same thing – get rid of all the formatting that you find in a typical Word file, only then can you hope for a decent result!
If things pan out the way I would like, and if there’s enough interest, Jan and I would consider running workshops to deal with all the issues that face everyone today. However, first of all, we would need to find out from you what are the biggest thorns in your side, and why the Internet, the source and font of all knowledge nowadays, hasn’t given you the answers you need.
Why would we even think about lectures and workshops about writing and publishing, when there are already so many being advertised across the country? Well, because:
- Jan and I have had about fifteen years of experience in running our own, successful, publishing business (Zambezi Publishing Ltd, www.zampub.com)
- We’ve recently formed a brand new company (Stellium Ltd, http://www.stellium.co.uk) to handle our new Fiction and Digital imprints, to keep up with developments in today’s publishing world.
- I’ve had over twenty-five years of writing experience, having been published by the likes of Thorsons, HarperCollins, Collins & Brown, Sterling Publishing, Inc., Piatkus and others. Having written 126 books in my time, with sales of over 6.5 million copies to date, I feel I know a bit about the author’s side of things!
- I’m constantly being asked questions about practically every issue to do with writing or publishing, and to be able to say, “it’s on my Blog, look it up!” will save me a great deal of time.
I think that’s about all for now; I’ll be back as I come up with something useful to say, but not on a regular basis at present, due to pressure of work. However, if you’d like to be emailed when there are new tips and ideas to view, I suggest that you leave your email address here. I promise, Jan and I keep mail lists and any data we have on file totally confidential and in-house – we don’t share mail lists with anybody – period!