18 October 2012
Posted in Books and Poetry
Screenwriter and first-time novelist Ølivier Nilsson-Julien on what he learned from The Guardian Self-Publishing Masterclass
Forty-eight participants arrived at The Guardian HQ in North London on a Saturday morning in June. Rebecca Swift from The Literary Consultancy started proceedings by asking about our backgrounds and it appeared that most of us had tried a traditional publishing route before turning to self-publishing: a published crime writer wanted to break with the pre-formatted crime books being churned out; an established author of self-help books had decided to publish independently for increased royalties; a serial novelist was fed up with the lack of control in publishing – essential information had been taken out of her last novel by the publisher without her consent, and the cover was horrible. It was obvious from talking to fellow writers that a wide range of genres and interests were represented. There seemed to be extensive industry experience and most participants had some degree of professional writing background.
Paperbooks tanking, ebooks taking off
The quality of the participants seemed to reflect the competitive nature of publishing. In fact, Swift told us that publishers usually rely on one or two bestselling authors to fund their whole business, which is why taking on a new title isn’t done lightly. During her session on ‘Evaluating and pitching your book’, Kate Roden of Guardian Books gave us some humbling figures. According to Nielsen Book Scan, only 76 print books sold more than 100,000 copies in 2011; 106 between 50,000 and 100,000; 465 between 10,000 and 50,000; 389 between 5,000 and 10,000; 2,000 between 1,000 and 5,000; 1,000 between 500 and 1,000; and 1,700 up to 500 copies.
‘Paperbacks are tanking and being replaced by ebooks,’ according to Roden. Confirming this trend, publisher and marketing specialist Edward Pettitt predicted that by 2015 e-books will represent 50% of book sales. To give an indication of the growth of self-publishing, he added that since 2009 there are more self-published than traditionally published books in the US. In 2010 there wasn’t a single self-published book in the Kindle top 100. In 2011, there were 18.
Defining the market & competition
Roden discussed how to identify the market and the competition. Are there similar books out there? How is yours different? Unique selling points? By using Google AdWords authors can see what people are searching and the words most commonly associated with your genre or subject. This is important for pitching and marketing, as writers need to know their target readers and what appeals to them. Authors need to think of as many connections as possible and identify reading communities likely to be interested in their books. Ultimately this is also about estimating market potential. Authors have to ask themselves realistically who is going to buy their book?
Estimated sales – The Ice Cage
Taking my Scandinavian thriller, The Ice Cage, as an example, the territory was pretty obvious and I was very excited to hear that Roden had worked on Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series.
Entering ‘Stieg Larsson’ on Google AdWord showed more than 300,000 searches per month globally, whereas ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ had over two million searches over the same period. Titles adapted to the screen obviously draw more people than books, but inevitably there is overlap and cross-fertilisation. ‘Wallander’ had 200,000 searches per month and ‘Mankell’ 100,000. Roden pointed out the diminishing returns of a genre following the first wave of success authors. In terms of concrete sales, a Larsson book sells around 300,000 in the UK, a thriller ‘Nesbø’ 60,000 and a Mankell about half of that. These figures are useful when estimating potential sales of a title. It should be added that Kenneth Branagh’s BBC adaptations reached more than five million viewers per episode, not to mention the popularity of the Swedish/Danish TV series The Bridge, so there is still a market for Scandinavian crime stories.
Being a first-time thriller writer, a non-celebrity and lacking the marketing machine of Larsson, Mankell or Nesbø, I can only aim for a fraction their sales. For a proper estimate I need to look at Scandinavian debut authors published by small publishers. In the meantime, my objective would probably be 1,000-1,500 units in the first year.*
Print and/or ebook?
When it comes to print books, Pettitt advised having them printed independently (good deals are available in India) and joining the Amazon Advantage scheme, whereby Amazon orders books from the author as it sells them. Print On Demand (POD) publishing via Amazon’s CreateSpace leaves little profit and he only recommended using it for the US market, to avoid postage costs and to guarantee US distribution.
A printed version isn’t necessary, but increased availability is beneficial, as the book can be given to people for reviews, sold at festival and events, used for signings and launches, which Waterstones and local bookshops are happy to accommodate, but only if the author can provide hard copies for the shop.
The general consensus among the speakers seemed to be that at the moment Kindle Direct Publishing is the most attractive option for fiction or non-fiction ebooks without too many illustrations or complex layouts. When asked if Apple wasn’t going to strike back, Pettitt said Amazon was a big player capable of facing the competition or even taking the lead in future innovation.
Nick Sidwell, Digital Publishing Manager at Guardian Books, held a session on how to format a Word document for Kindle Direct Publishing. Preparing the document for publication was mainly about removing complex code by switching on ‘show formatting’, i.e. clicking the pilcrow symbol (¶) on the menu bar and removing all tabs and excessive returns. Use of standard fonts such as Arial or Times New Roman is recommended and unusual symbols such as the ø in Nesbø need to be removed or tested before publication. The actual uploading on Kindle Direct is easy. What is essential and most time-consuming is the preparation. All of the speakers recommended hiring a proofreader and a copy editor. Auxiliary rights also need to be cleared, in case of maps, illustrations, song texts or quotes for instance. Ebooks can be previewed on Kindle Direct, but if possible it is recommended that authors test their books on different platforms – Kindle reader, iPhone, PC, iPad, although if the Word document has been properly cleaned, it shouldn’t be an issue. For precise formatting details, Sidwell referred to the excellent formatting instructions on Smashwords, downloadable as a PDF and also applicable to Kindle.
Marketing & Pitfalls
The speakers all agreed that using social media and maximising the author network is key to success in self-publishing. On Amazon, authors can almost compete on a level field with publishers, but only if they avoid the pitfalls of self-publishing, namely: 1) an unprofessional book with poor layout, editing spelling and continuity; 2) a bad cover; 3) insufficient marketing and/or knowledge of your target audience.
Freelance publishing professionals can be sourced from sites such as Elance. As for covers, Pettitt mentioned 99Designs.com. The third point is pretty obvious. It’s about identifying the market, competition and unique selling points (see above under Defining the market). Once authors know their readership, they will also know which sites and communities to target.
Pettitt stressed the need to exploit all the possibilities offered by Amazon, including Author’s Page with space for a video and extensive text. Last but not least, it’s important to ask people for reviews and useful quotes, especially from people relevant to your genre or subject. Obviously, irrelevant celebrity endorsements can be very effective too. Regarding ebook pricing, Pettitt believes that low prices (99p, £1.99) favour volume, but tend to be associated with self-published books. A slightly higher price may attract fewer sales but signify higher quality. All this is changing though as the quality of self-publishing improves every day. Witness the above-mentioned 18 self-published titles in the Kindle 2011 top 100.
The masterclass ended with a pitching session. We had handed in taglines for our books beforehand, which we complemented with a face-to-face pitch, covering target readership and estimated sales as well as distribution and marketing strategy. This session included feedback and was a chance to channel the knowledge we had acquired over the weekend into our respective projects.
If I had any doubts about self-publishing before, they evaporated after the two days at King’s Place. It was a real boost and even if I were to follow a traditional publishing route, I still feel the masterclass would have been very useful. It made clear that although self-publishing is a viable and growing option, there are no shortcuts and to be successful authors need to embrace being overworked, multi-tasking and methodical control freaks – they need to be publishers.
*Update Oct. 2012: This proved to be an underestimate, as The Ice Cage hit #1 in Amazon.uk free Kindle books with 13,000 downloads over a September weekend and went on to reach the one-year target of 1,500 units in a couple of weeks…
Ølivier Nilsson-Julien is a Nørth London-based author, screenwriter and translator. He tweets about storytelling in film, literature and cycling @IceCageOlivier