03rd Apr2013

Mark Edwards – The Difference Between Self and Traditional Publishing

by Lloyd Paige

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I recently made an appearance at a book club event in Birmingham and was asked to tell the story of my experiences as a writer. I started by asking the attendants if I should assume none of them had heard of me because I didn’t want to bore them by repeating stuff they already knew. Luckily, none of them had heard of me or my books. I had a similar experience at the Harrogate Crime Festival last year, when a man squinted at my name badge and asked, ‘Should I have heard of you?’

I mention this not because I think I should be recognisable, but to demonstrate how despite having had a No.1 hit on Amazon as a self-published writer – in tandem with my co-writer Louise Voss – and being all over the media because of that (two appearances on BBC Breakfast, Sky News, Reuters, most national broadsheets) nobody has a clue who I am apart from self-published writers and the people who are interested in that topic.

So when Louise and I got a traditional deal and went on to have books in the shops, we had to start all over again. There is very little link between the Kindle chart and the print bestseller list. Although a lot of big print books cross over and become Kindle hits, there have been few instances of it happening the other way round – unless you count Fifty Shades of Grey of course, which wasn’t really self-published apart from its appearances on fan fiction sites. Wool is probably the closest thing there’s been to a book that started as a self-published sensation that has gone on to do well in print, helped by having a lot of marketing money behind it as well as the fact that it’s a great book.

For most of us, whether self- or traditionally published, it takes a long time and a good deal of luck to become established and to break through so that people do recognise your name and get excited about your next book. For most writers, this requires the long-term support of publishers who are prepared to invest in their authors and wait for that breakthrough. This recently happened to Jojo Moyes, who had a huge hit with Me Before You.

But now there is another route not only into publishing but to the continuation of a writing career. There are hundreds of formerly traditionally published writers turning to self-publishing. And there are writers, like Louise and me, who are doing both at the same time. This hybrid way of publishing is, in my opinion, the way forward for a lot of writers. As Stephen Leather proved, successful self-publishing can actually boost sales of your trade novels, and I have seen this with the self-publication of my solo novel The Magpies.

I launched The Magpies to the small but dedicated group of fans we have built up. These fans couldn’t give a rat’s bum whether our books are published by HarperCollins or us directly. They just want to read our novels. Of course, those of them who don’t own Kindles are frustrated that they can’t get The Magpies in the shops, but for the majority, they really don’t care.

As I write this, The Magpies is sitting just outside the top 30 on the Kindle chart. This is fantastic in itself, but it is also helping to pull our other novels – especially our underperforming previous novel, All Fall Down – up with it. If 1000 readers a day buy The Magpies, we only need a small percentage of them to go back and buy the backlist or to add our next HarperCollins book, Forward Slash, to their wish list, for our traditional books to suddenly have much healthier sales figures.

Some people might ask why we are even bothered about being traditionally published if our biggest hits have all been self-published. This is where I finally get to the point of this post: the difference between being traditionally and self-published. Although readers might not notice who puts the words on their e-reader screens, for writers there are three big differences.

The first is respect. When you tell people you are self-published, they either look at you with sympathy or their eyes dart about, worried you are going to try to get them to buy your YA fantasy-meets-gritty-chick-lit series. Even if you’ve sold 100,000 ebooks. When you tell them you are published by HarperCollins, it’s completely different. Suddenly, you are a ‘proper’ writer rather than a nutter with a word processor. Other traditionally-published writers will suddenly talk to you. It’s unfair but true.

The second reason is having books in shops. There is still a big difference in the feeling of holding your own book in your hands, of seeing it in a shop, than of looking at it on a screen. Maybe future generations of writers won’t get that, but for those of us weaned on paper, our early publication fantasies revolving around real books, it makes a big difference.

Finally, the most important reason. Editing. I’m not talking about proof-reading, but proper editing, where a third party helps you develop your idea, gives you encouragement and goes through the manuscript at the end with a big red pen and makes you change loads. It makes for better books. (Having said that, the trade version of Killing Cupid is exactly the same as the self-published version – not a single word was edited, and it was still chosen by Peter James as his book of 2012.) With The Magpies, I was lucky enough to have a good friend called Louise Voss who is not only a talented writer but an excellent editor, and my other half is also a very good editor. But most people aren’t lucky enough to be in that position. For us writers, the quality of the book is the most important thing, and that’s the main reason why, although I enjoy self-publishing too, I still place enormous value in being ‘properly’ published.

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