Following on from the fascinating discussion at Cornflower’s site, I’ve become interested in the ways that authors are trying to improve their situation in today’s publishing crisis. To that end, I interviewed Christine Coleman, who became a small-scale publisher herself in order to get her second novel, Paper Lanterns, out into the marketplace. Here’s how she describes the process of going it alone in the book world.
1. Can you tell me what motivated you to set up Novel Press?
In a word: obstinacy!
My first novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society, was published by Transita in 2005. Unfortunately for them, they fell on hard times and had to close down, leaving me with my completed next novel, Paper Lanterns, but no publisher. I soon found that the state of the publishing industry was even harsher than it had been a few years earlier, and after at least 18 months of trying, I had to accept that if Paper Lanterns was ever going to make it into print, I’d have to do it myself.
I’d learned a great deal about the marketing difficulties for small independent publishers like Transita, so when I started researching some Author Services companies, I wasn’t over impressed by their assurances that my book would have a presence in a wide range of outlets. It’s one thing to get copies into the book shops, and quite another to send them flying off the shelves. Some of these companies seemed better than others, but although I could see their attractions, I wanted total control of my product, particularly when it came to the selling price.
Print on Demand seemed the way to go: I wouldn’t be left with hundreds of surplus copies cluttering my house, so I approached Lightning Source, one of the major P.O.D. publishers. In response to my enquiry, they directed me to a long list of Author Services, (many of which I’d already researched and rejected) and informed me that they deal direct with publishers, not authors.
That was it then – I was a publisher. All I needed was a name.
2. What were the most difficult obstacles to overcome?
The technical side of the process was more complicated than I’d expected. It wasn’t just the need to acquire and master the correct software to produce the files in the right format for the printers. There were numerous other aspects that could make the difference between a professional looking paperback and a product that clearly signalled ‘self-published’.
I’d been advised of the importance of the weight and colour of the paper by a friend who reviews advance copies of novels, both self, and traditionally, published. She told me that a novel printed on bright white, smooth paper was one of the give-aways. It was also likely to be heavier than usual. I’d discovered that the average paperback novel weighs somewhere between 8 and 9 ounces. When I eventually received the samples of the only two types of paper that Lightning Source provided at that time, I found that a bright white version of Paper Lanterns would weigh 12 ounces, while the cream colour would weigh in at a brick-like 16 ounces!
This was a great disappointment to me as neither of those types of paper would give me the quality of product that I was looking for. On top of that, the cost of postage would have been prohibitive. Paper was proving to be the main obstacle to the P.O.D. route, so my next step was to contact the printers used by Transita. Their paper was just what I needed and I was delighted by the low unit cost of producing the copies. The only drawback was the size of the minimum print run: a thousand copies. Without a sales and marketing team behind you, that’s a lot of books to sell!
3. Publicity and distribution pose challenges to any publisher – what strategies do you have at your disposal?
My main publicity ‘strategy’ was to start with my own contacts and readers of my previous novel, both face to face and on-line. My son had made me a website when The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia was published, but for the next three years it was rarely updated, so he suggested that it was time to turn it into an active blog. Over the following months I developed links with other readers and writers blogs, and had to discipline myself to limit the time I spent on so many interesting sites.
I was able to generate a lot of pre-publication interest in Paper Lanterns by inviting people to take part in my Cover Design Challenge . This turned out to be an invaluable exercise. I had already decided on my favourite of the seven drafts produced by the designer, but I couldn’t ignore the choice made by 80% of the participants, and I gradually realised that they had definitely chosen the design that would make the strongest initial impact.
I’ve been able to build on previous publicity for my first novel, and have had two separate double page spreads in local newspapers, one of me, as a writer and publisher, and the other, a nostalgic feature about the cache of real-life love letters written in China by two separate women to the same man, which inspired a section of the book.
I knew that distribution would be a major challenge for Novel Press, as I’d registered myself on Nielsen as the distributor as well as the publisher. It’s ironic that when my local Waterstones wanted some copies, they had to be ordered from Gardners in Eastbourne, two hundred miles away, instead of being able to contact Novel Press direct, a couple of miles down the road. After I’d received the order and sent them to Gardners, their next destination was Waterstones’ main hub, somewhere in the Midlands. The package eventually arrived at the bookshop at least four weeks after the order had been placed, while I could have delivered within ten minutes of a phone call!
I was aware that The Book Depository offered free postage on book deliveries anywhere in the world and at one point, it seemed that this company would be able to distribute copies of my books abroad. All I needed was to persuade ‘Inpress’, The Online Bookstore for Independent Publishers, to accept Paper Lanterns. However, because Novel Press had no list of other novels to bring out in the same year, Paper Lanterns was treated like any other self-published book, and was therefore not acceptable.
4. What have been the best bits about the whole venture for you?
The quality of the product! The fact that the physical book itself, as well as the content, was all my own work, gave me a huge sense of achievement. Feasting my senses of sight, touch and smell by handling a copy of Paper Lanterns in this way, became an almost daily ritual for weeks!
The novel itself is set mainly in Hong Kong where one of my sisters lives, and the copies arrived in time for me to take some with me on my next trip there, a few days later. Through one of her contacts, I was able to arrange a meeting with the Chinese manager of a large bookshop chain – another highlight in my new career as a publisher. Her order of twenty copies of Paper Lanterns was the icing on that piece of cake.
There have been numerous ‘best bits’ about this whole venture. These include: a glowing review in an on-line magazine for Lamma Island written by a resident of this lesser-known part of Hong Kong; an enthusiastic article about Novel Press on the Writing West Midlands’ blog; an invitation to mention Paper Lanterns and Novel Press after the plenary address at the Winchester Writers Conference in June; an email from a woman in Tennessee who had come across Paper Lanterns through a circuitous on-line search for the next novel for her book-club, and wanted to order ten copies. Since it’s not available in the U.S., this was an encouraging demonstration of the power of the internet.
5. I’ve heard claims that publishing is hard for small businesses because of the prohibitive cost. Is that the case, would you say?
Transita’s sad demise after the publication of 32 paperback novels in eighteen weeks would seem to confirm this, but when it comes to individual or small collective ventures, I would say that the cost is not a major issue. I belong to a poetry writing group, Soundswrite, which has produced two professional looking slim volumes, using Lightning Source. Since these contained less than 90 pages (compared to the nearly 300 pages of my novel) the paper was perfectly acceptable, and the unit costs were so reasonable that we were able to price the first (with only 62 pages) at a mere £3.95, and the second (89 pages) at £5.00. Each of these publications gave us a small profit which we were able to donate to the Parkinson’s Disease Society.
I’m pleased to say that Novel Press is well on the way to breaking even, and has sold (or given as review copies) half the original stock. At a talk I was invited to give to a local writers’ group, I was asked about the overall cost of producing my novel. It struck me then that one way of looking at the investment in publishing a novel in a professional way, could be to ask oneself how much one would be prepared to spend in one year on eating out, theatres, holidays or buying equipment for a creative leisure pastime, or an annual subscription for a sports club etc. – not forgetting that writing itself is a low-cost activity. Looked at this way, it is a relatively inexpensive venture, with a potential for actually making a small net profit.
6. What is next for Novel Press? How will you move forward now? What have you learned so far?
It was the members of my fiction writing group who encouraged me to start Novel Press, as I was the first to have a novel ready for publication. Without any external funding, I had a completely open mind about the next steps. I would be the testing the water for the rest of the group and we could all learn from my experience.
Two talented members of my group have nearly completed a dual-authored novel, set in Cuba. If they decide to publish with Novel Press, it would be to my delight, with my support, and at their own expense. After that, we’d see what happens.
As for myself, I’ll take a break from fiction for a while and devote more time to my poetry. Novel Press can publish poetry collections too, using Lightning Source if I decide to. I have an as-yet unpublished novel completed ten years ago that The Literary Consultancy deemed worthy of publication. I also have ideas for future novels, so I could keep Novel Press busy for years, even without the others in my writing group!
If I can find the time, I’ll continue to give talks about my writing and publishing to groups of readers and other writers, and any groups who might be interested in listening.
7. What advice would you give to other people who want to move into publishing?
Research. Record. Review. Research. Relax and get on with it.
Of course, you don’t have to be a writer in order to become a publisher, but I can only speak from my own experience. Paying other authors for the privilege of publishing their books would have different logistical and financial implications.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience the difference between the traditional and self-publishing routes. Although I’ve gained a lot of satisfaction and knowledge from my venture, I would still recommend any first time novelist to exhaust all efforts to find a traditional publisher before deciding to take on the full responsibility themselves.
Having said that, I must add that there are definite advantages in having complete control of your own product, from the content of the text to the design of the front cover and the selling price on the back. So long as you are realistic about the potential readership for your novel, and you have sought (and taken on board) critical advice from suitably experienced people whose judgement you can trust, there’s nothing to stop you from writing the story you want to tell, rather than trying to force the beautifully-worked square peg of your novel, into the small round hole constructed by the book-buyers at Tesco.
You can buy Paper Lanterns at amazon
or from the author’s website