When Getting A Book Out There Means Self-Publishing

On October 21, 2013

There is a story I really want to see published. It’s the autobiography of a woman who is funny, brave, strong, inspiring – and much more besides. A woman who has lived an extraordinary life, been through dark and difficult times, and somehow emerged in one piece to tell the tale with wit and wisdom. I met this woman – who I’ll call X – a little while ago, and one day we sat down and she told me about her life. I wrote it up into a proposal, confident of finding a publisher. Not that I felt it would be easy. This particular subject did not fall into the celebrity category and, as such, I knew that publishers would take some convincing that her book could make it into the bestseller lists – a crucial consideration in today’s tough market.

To start with, I looked for an agent willing to take things forward, since I feel having an agent on board lends credibility. I did find someone who was sympathetic. ‘It is a good story with plenty of event and with a sympathetic character at its heart and it’s quite likely a publisher will be interested, but I’m not convinced it’s a ‘big’ enough pitch,’ he said. I pressed him to have a go anyway, and, to his credit, he did, pitching it at some of the big publishers. Everyone seemed to like what they read in the proposal and we got lots of complimentary feedback. However, no one was willing to take the book on. This is a flavour of what the publishers said:

‘What an extraordinary story she has.’

‘She’s a truly inspirational woman with a heart-wrenching story.’

‘I was very torn on it. I thought it was a wonderful proposal – really characterful, with a strong and engaging voice …’

‘This one just sounds too small for the list as I’m only really buying celebs at the mo.’

‘I don’t feel there’s quite enough here to get her into the bestseller charts.’

What it came down to, in essence, was that, while it was a compelling story, no one felt they could get it into the bestseller lists. Not the way the market stood then. As a ghostwriter, I know that not everything will find a publisher and that not every proposal I write will result in a commission. In this case, though, the story of X got under my skin and became something I didn’t want to give up on.

X and I have talked about self-publishing and I’m aware of how brilliantly that has worked for some writers. I’m inspired by the experiences of those like Mel Sherratt, Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, who have shown it’s possible to do it yourself, self-publish novels, and succeed in the most impressive, best-selling style. What’s holding me back is that I’m not convinced self-publishing is a good idea when it comes to non-fiction. I’d be interested to hear the views of anyone who has tried it and succeeded. Personally, I find the editing process that comes with having a publisher invaluable. In my experience, a fresh pair of eyes reading the first draft makes a huge difference. With a great editor on board a good book can become a really good book. Then there’s the copy editing process. However careful you may be, an experienced copy editor will improve on things or at least raise questions that may not have occurred while you’re immersed in telling the story. There are also legal implications to consider, with a work of non-fiction in particular. That legal read – which can be annoying at times! – is another vital step on the road towards publication. Of course, all these different elements can be brought into the self-publishing mix, but the costs soon add up and, when there’s no publisher’s advance, the money has to be found up front. That may work for some but not others.

My instinct with the story of X is to keep going and do my utmost to find a publisher – the right publisher for this story. In this case, I feel a ‘proper’ publisher is in the best interests of the book, and the subject, for lots of reasons, not least making the book the best it can be. I do believe that if you have faith in something it’s worth exploring every possible option you can. I also feel that everything goes in waves, publishers change their minds about the kind of books they want to buy, readers’ tastes change, and therefore timing is often significant.

I’m encouraged by the experience of Jeff Pearce, author of A Pocketful of Holes and Dreams, who wrote his autobiography and then spent three years sending it out to agents and publishers. He got fifty-one rejections.

‘I didn’t give up, I even printed a small run of my first draft for friends and family, and received such encouraging feedback that I persevered with my work,’ he writes in the epilogue. ‘Almost four years after I started, I received a call from an agent out of the blue, telling me he had found a publisher who was interested in my story.’

His book was published by Penguin in 2011 and was a bestseller.

On that note, I’d say it’s worth persevering. How about you?

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