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Publish or Perish? Authors and Self-publishing

Helen Fry

New opportunities have opened for authors and writers that were not available just five years ago; the most rapid growth being in self-publishing. When Amazon launched its self-publishing platform, it revolutionized my career as a historian. Much of what I would like to share here is true across the spectrum of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, academic or non-academic, popular or niche subjects. Authors have much more choice now if they are brave enough to step into the world of self-publishing. I say brave because, until recently, self-publishing had a lot of negative baggage attached to it. But that too is changing. 

I always had no difficulty in attracting a middle-of-the-road publisher, but had been unable to secure a contract from a top publisher, even after being an established historian of over 23 books. In 2012, I hit a stumbling block when mainstream publishers rejected proposals for my next WW2 book, The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis. It was believed that it would not shift many copies. I was faced with a choice: to self-publish or drop the idea. The latter was not an option because I had promised my surviving 94-year old veteran secret listener, Fritz Lustig, that I would write the previously unpublished story of his top secret unit. Time was running out to publish it within Fritz’s own lifetime. I decided to upload the book with Amazon for Kindle and a printed version with its sister company, Createspace. The book came out at the end of 2012 and turned out to be highly marketable. It continues to sell well, but most importantly was made into two TV documentaries for Channel 4 and ITV, also shown across America. The M Room story has now just been developed for a national school’s internet-based curriculum WW2 project. None of this would have happened if I had not self-published. What I have discovered is the media (with the exception of a couple of newspapers) are not bothered by who the publisher is, but the content of the book. It is the story itself which sells. 

Whilst it is still beneficial to sign with a big publisher, if this is not an option then, rather than consign the manuscript to the recesses of the computer, it is worth exploring the self-publishing route. It does not mean you won’t be picked up by a publisher in the future. Self-publishing isn’t an easy option – there is lot of work involved. But with trial and error (eg. working out how to format your book and upload it), it is possible to make this a realistic option. Amazon, for example, replies to email queries within 24 hours. They will also prepare the book for publication for a fee if you are unable to do it yourself. Otherwise, it costs you nothing to publish with them, except if you chose to employ a private editor or designer for the jacket cover. It is possible to do all the work yourself for free. This process allows for lots of flexibility – for example, if you find errors, you can upload a new file (even for the print-on-demand version). Royalties are paid at the end of each month, bi-monthly in arrears straight into your bank account. Once uploaded onto Amazon’s publishing platform, the book is rolled out internationally across all their sites and royalties earned on sales, at a rate that is the most competitive in the current market. Legally, Amazon acts as a publishing platform, not the publisher, and that means that the author holds all the rights for that book (film, TV, etc). 

If you opt for the self-publishing route, it is essential to market the book, including all aspects of social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogging). Most importantly, creating a website dedicated to your work is essential because this is how people find you, including media companies. Since the M Room book, I have successfully published Spymaster: The Secret Life of Kendrick which has been covered on live BBC radio interviews, a feature article in the Daily Mail online and numerous forthcoming reviews. Within the last month, I have had interest from a mainstream publisher for my next WW2 book and I am weighing up the advantages or disadvantages of switching back to traditional publishing because self-publishing has worked extraordinarily well for me. Do I wish to return to settlement of my royalties once a year? At a significantly less royalty rate per book? It is an interesting dilemma. 

Whilst publishing is still undergoing transition and change in our 21st century, it must be remembered that the power of story is not lost. Its mode of transfer has just changed. If we care passionately about the book we wish to write, we must give it a voice. Modern flexible self-publishing enables us to do that. Our love of books and story do not change with new technology. In that respect nothing has changed since Shakespeare or Dickens’s day. Whatever the genre, we love a darn good story. 

Find out more about Helen Fry, historian & biographer, on her website.