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The Rise of Mel Sherratt

Open your Sunday newspaper or click through the culture section of your favourite news site and like us, you’ll have realized that self-publishing in the digital age has gone past being a fad and way further than a phenomenon; quite simply, it’s here to stay. 

With this in mind, Writers & Artists put editor Cressida Downing in touch with author Mel Sherratt, whose self-published thriller Taunting the Dead became a bestseller on the 2012 Kindle charts, and Madeleine Milburn, the literary agent who now represents Mel, to talk all things self-publishing.

I’ve got to know quite a few authors who have put an e-book out there, but there are a lot fewer that have taken the plunge into actual hard-copy print - Mel’s done both.

Interested to assess the look and feel of a self-published novel ahead of speaking to Mel, I ordered a copy of Somewhere To Hide – the first of her three ‘Estate’ novels.  These are available through Amazon’s CreateSpace, which prints paper copies on demand. 

It arrived within a couple of days, coming through the door when I had a few friends around, one of whom has worked as a bookseller for many years.  Without telling them why I was asking, I passed it around. 

‘What’s different about this book?’

It was weighed up, sniffed, examined.  The verdict eventually was that maybe it was an especially ecologically sound paperback?
The quality was very good with heavy slightly creamy paper.  The only clues that it’s not a traditionally published book are that the cover is a little thinner than normal and there are no imprint or publisher details.

In short, this paperback stood up well to the other ‘properly published’ books on the shelf, and didn’t carry any sense of being a cheap or rushed job.

Mel said she liked having paper copies for books signings, although the margins are much slenderer.  As an author, she can buy them at trade price and they get sent over from the States, with postage costs varying depending on how fast she needs them.

I read it in one sitting, and found the quality at least as good as many traditionally published books, which isn’t surprising given Mel’s success.

I spoke to her to find out how she’s become a best-selling author, and what’s next for her literary career.

CD: Tell us a bit about  your writing journey, did you set out to become a self-published author?

MS: No!  I was a housing officer and used to write in the weekend and evenings.  I spent 12 years trying for a traditional deal.  I came really close twice, but my writing was considered too ‘cross-genre’.

I was submitting the Estate series [which begins with Somewhere To Hide] and they didn’t fit neatly into existing categories.

CD: So what gave you the push?

MS: I was made redundant so I decided to try and make the money last and take a year out to just write.

I put a lot of time into researching the self-publishing market.  I got a lot of good advice from authors Kerry Wilkinson and also Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, then I thought I’d just have a go.

I was at the point of having to apply for another job when it all took off.

CD: How do you find your experience with Amazon?

MS: Brilliant! KDP is a very easy system to use.  I did have a mentor, Catherine Ryan Howard, whose book Self Printed is a total bible.  I followed that step by step and found it very easy. 

I find the back end of the Amazon system really useful – it shows you what sells when, the peaks and trough, all the marketing information you need.  

CD: The complaint I’ve heard most often about the self-publishing route is that getting the book out is easy – getting readers to the book is hard – how did you do that?

MS: I built up a platform up two years before without realising how useful that was.  My blog, High heels and book deals, is where I interview authors.  I get in touch with the PR, do a book review etc, chat with the woman, and put a pair of shoes at the bottom! 

Everyone loves shoes.  So it’s a two-way promotion, for me and the other authors.

I feel it gave me back what I gave out.  I get lots of support from authors.  I was supportive and chatty with them for years, so when it came to my time, I had 40 or 50 authors who were interested in what I was doing.

CD: It’s possible to publish a novel all for free – but what (if any) services did you buy (such as editorial, cover design etc)?

MS: I’ve got a friend who helps me design my covers.  I’m learning how to do it myself now, and thinking of re-branding my earlier covers. 

Copy editing is essential - always have it done.  I  didn’t have it done to start with – I didn’t know you could – but I’ve have had it done since.  I’ve used 2 or 3 different copy editors and they all have different styles.

It costs roughly £500 per book to get it copy edited.  The editors check grammar, spelling, typos, and the names of people. 

CD: What one piece of advice would you give a new author setting out now?

MS: Concentrate on writing the best book you can.  Find out what’s the best for you – whether that’s self-publishing or traditional publishing– don’t get pressurized.  As long as you’re happy – as long as you’ve got a great book that you’re proud of I’m sure that you’ll find readers.

If you’re using social media, remember to think about the social elements of it.  Get to know people, chat, download samples of other authors’ books.  Use the 80/20 rule of 80% replies or retweets, 20% self-promotion.  I only link to a new blog post once, that seems to be enough. 

CD: I’m sure everyone asks you this, so apologies, but how much money do you make out of it?

MS: No-one’s asked me that!

CD: Really?  I’d have thought that was the one question everyone wants to know!  Ok – let’s try this  - does your writing cover bills and the odd bottle of champagne?

MS: Yes, I make a comfortable living.  Earning money from my writing is really beyond my wildest dreams.  Mind you, I’ve been writing for 12 years, so if you work it out on an hourly basis I’m probably on about minus £10 an hour!  Anyway, it’s working well now and for the foreseeable future.

CD: Would you do anything different if you could start again?

MS: I don’t think I would.  Amazon changed my life.  The past 12 months I’ve put six books on Amazon and it really gave me confidence.  There’s still a stigma – but a lot less so, times have changed.

CD: You’ve got an agent now – are you now looking for a traditional publishing deal – if so – why?

MS: Once I had two books in the top ten, I had five agents come after me!  I had an agent already but that hadn’t really gone anywhere.  I’d written something a bit different, a psychological suspense novel, Watching Over You, which I think is my genre.
It’s out with publishers now, which is nerve-wracking!  I’m not sure whether traditional publishing will be the right thing for me, but it’s still my dream at the moment.

The trouble with self-publishing is that you have do all the things a publisher would do.  If I got a traditional deal, I’d have more time to write.

Mel’s agent is Madeleine Milburn, and I asked her a few questions about how agents are handling self-published authors.

CD: The question authors always want to know is whether self-publishing means you then don’t have any chance of getting a traditional publishing deal. 

MM: If a writer decides to self-publish and doesn't sell many copies, it will indeed hinder their chance of finding an agent and a traditional publisher.  Agents and publishers like brand new material - a debut novel that has not been tested on the market before. 

They like to shape and grow a writing career from scratch.  It is very difficult to sell a book to a traditional publisher that has been self-published if it has not sold many copies - a publisher would feel that this has already been tested and rejected by the market.

Agents and traditional publishers tend to look at self-published books that are selling over 100,000 copies but they will enquire about the price point.  It is no good if an author is selling 100,000 copies all under 99p, or even for free.

CD: Would you recommend self-publishing then?

MM: There are hundreds and thousands of self-published books on the market.  A tiny percentage breaks out but this rarely happens unless a writer is business minded and invests enormous amounts of time in self- promotion.

Self-publishing is only an option I would explore after every other avenue has been tried.  It is something to consider if you are business minded and have the time to dedicate at least 5 hours a day to self- promotion.  I also feel you should have a huge backlist so  you can put books out quickly.   Otherwise, stick to the traditional route.  Self-publishing should never be seen as something to experiment with.  You have to be a writer, an agent, a publicist and a publisher, and even then it's very difficult to break out in an oversaturated market.

CD: If you take on an author – like Mel for example – do you then take commission on the books she has already had out as self-published titles?

MM: I personally only take commission from books that I sell i.e. where I've done the deal, so I would never ask for commission from books an author had self-published.

CD: Why should an author get an agent?  After all, doesn’t that take more money out of their royalties?

MM: Amazon (KDP) is not a publisher so a writer is getting 70% because they are doing all the work themselves - they need to invest heavily in the edit, the copyedit, the cover design, promotion etc.  As there are thousands of self-published books on Amazon, writers are having to price their books very low to encourage new readers to buy them.  They only get a 70% royalty if their book is priced above a fixed amount.   Most self-published authors have to give away their books for free to build their readership and therefore don't get the kind of royalties they expected.

Writers with business minds who are incredibly good at self-promotion, networking and marketing ultimately look for an agent, even when they have successfully self-published, to take their careers to the next level and exploit all the other rights. You also don't get a publishing advance when you self-publish.

CD: Mel is obviously a talented author – so the question remains, why did it take so long for her to get traditional attention? 

Having read one of her Estate books, I think the key is really the fact that she wrote something that didn’t fit easily into traditional genres. 

I could have classified Somewhere to Hide as akin to a Martina Cole, although the criminals are more casual and disaffected, but there’s more to the Estate books than that – a real sense of warmth and care about her characters.

It sounds like her latest book’s genre is actually the perfect fit for her writing, and she’s on the verge of another – bigger – breakthrough.

If you can take a lesson from another author’s journey – and it’s always worth looking for one! – self-publishing is the ideal route for a book that’s just a bit different, that doesn’t slot neatly into what publishers are looking for.  If the quality of the writing is good enough, you will gain readers and attention.

If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at:

Have you considered self-publishing?

Managing without a publisher: when to go it alone

Book marketing: what happens and when?