All aspiring authors wish they could be one of those privileged writers. You know the ones – those showered with a huge publisher advance, given glowing reviews in prestigious publications such as the London Review of Books and set up with lucrative book signing ceremonies up and down the land. The reality for most of us budding authors is completely different. Traditional publishers are often tricky to approach and many take an age before declining our request to be taken on as one of their authors.
Many publishers these days seem to be preoccupied with looking for a new cash cow – youngish authors with a long shelf life who can keep on delivering profitable blockbusters. A publisher rejection therefore appears to be much more likely taken on financial grounds rather than on the literary or editorial merits of the idea contained in our precious manuscripts.
I was faced with this depressing scenario in 2015 when trying to find an outlet for a book I was writing about Emperor Haile Selassie’s exile in the UK in the 1930s. I believed it had some integrity as a subject and could also prove attractive to a niche audience. But I was getting nowhere with publishers, even those who specialised in history and international affairs. I felt I was marking time as I was hoping to bring the book out around the 80th anniversary of the Emperor’s arrival in the UK in 1936. He had fled here from his homeland Ethiopia after the invasion of Italian fascist forces.
I therefore took the decision to find a self-publishing firm to help me cut through the uncertainty. While searching online, I discovered that the Self-Publishing Partnership had considerable pedigree and was based in Bath. This was important to me as I also live in this city which features heavily in my book as the Emperor spent more than three years based here during his exile. To me, it was important to be able to have personal contact with a publisher throughout the entire publication process. That is not necessarily vital for everyone and I imagine it can also work very well to conduct the publication process by phone and online contact.
Once the deal was done with SPP, it was a relief to have support in proof-reading, lay-out, design and organising the printing and distribution of the book. Another huge advantage of self-publishing is that you as the author retain editorial control of the book and can also keep more of any profits from sales. On the downside, all of the financial risk is on you. There is also still snobbery in some circles that you are going it alone rather than having the backing of a traditional publisher. Thankfully this condescension is receding.
Away from the concerns of getting the book published, I loved conducting the research and would advise anyone not to rush this phase. Working out the overall structure of the book and the composition of the various chapters was also an enjoyable puzzle. Once I was ready to start writing, the first draft emerged very quickly. So far so good. What I had not realised was how time-consuming and challenging the tasks of proof-reading, fact-checking and content editing would be.
Although a self-publishing company can help with these tasks, the onus is very much on you the author as the person ultimately responsible. I ended up writing many drafts and thought I would never purge the final text of all the typos, poor grammar and tiny factual errors. I found I also needed to rely on the help of friends and colleagues to push me over the line.
All the effort was worth it once the final version emerged in the spring of 2016. I loved the cover design, the feel of the paper and the size of book. One tip at this stage is only to print a hundred or so books at a time so it is easier to make small changes in subsequent editions once feedback has been received from a wider group of actual readers.
It was down to me to publicise the book as I chose a package without this help. Drumming up support for your work can be a tough and lonely experience. I was envious of some author friends who had long-established publishing companies behind them who could organise book tours and high-profile reviews. However, because I knew the subject well and had a variety of contacts, I was able to organise some events which helped the book to become better known. I tried to think big. One successful idea I had was to organise a city-wide event to mark the 80th anniversary of the Emperor’s arrival in Bath.
Because I owned the content of the book, I was also easily able to do some co-production deals to get it published in Ethiopia and the US through small traditional publishers based there. This meant I was able to extend the reach of my work to those who might be specifically interested in its subject matter.
I have just about broken even in financial terms. Of course, I will never be compensated for the months of work in research, writing and publicising the book. But who cares? It may be a cliche but I wrote this book out of love not for profit. Je ne regrette rien.
I had a lot of fun along the way in going down the self-publishing route and would like to thank all at SPP, especially Douglas Walker. Who knows, I might still be waiting for the book to appear in print if I had waited to go down the traditional publisher path?
The above is a guest article by Keith Bowers, author of Imperial Exile – a book about Emperor Haile Selassie’s exile in the UK in the 1930s.