I’m a little overwhelmed

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Every now and again, something, or someone, comes along and makes the sun shine a little brighter.

I don’t know Marcus Case, author of “The Bomb Makers” – at least, I didn’t until he commented on my recent Guest Author post on Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog that he was reading my novel, Singled Out. I always hold my breath when someone sticks their head over the parapet and admits to having picked up a copy of Singled Out on the strength of a blog post or a recommendation by someone else. Sales are still only in double figures (I’m close to that third figure, very close…) and every single reader – and their opinion and feedback – matters. I don’t know if that will ever change, but my guess is that sales would have to be deep into five or maybe even six figures before it does. Optimism, eh?

There’s always the possibility when someone fesses up to reading your novel, that they find as they dig into it that it’s not to their taste. What happens then? You might get negative feedback of course, but equally likely is that they’d just go quiet and you’d have to forget you ever heard from them in the first place. For as long as I hold my breath waiting on a reader’s opinion, there’s fear niggling away at the back of my mind. Will they like the story, or not? Will they get it? Will they want to tell me what they thought, either way, or will they evaporate into the ether leaving me with just one conclusion – that they hated it. Or perhaps worse, that they were indifferent to it.

This week I was lucky. My wait was short. Marcus Case ploughed through Singled Out in just a few days.

I only mention this as he has been generous enough to write the kind of 5-star review that stops an author in their tracks and then upload it to Amazon UK and USA and Goodreads. In his review, he makes some observations that no one else has yet made. They caused me to look at my story differently. I was struck by what he said, not just because he said a lot of very nice things; but because of what made me realise about my own writing.

This review made me walk a little taller. And it teased that still small dream, that one day those sales figures might, perhaps, possibly climb into that far distant five or six figure universe. Maybe.

So thank you, Marcus Case, for your review, and for making the sun shine a little brighter for me yesterday. Thank you indeed.

Seven Top Tips for Promoting your Novel as Holiday Read

2015-06-07 15.04.54Would your novel make a great holiday read? If so, now might be the time for a promotion.

Waterstones’ Summer Holiday Book Club list will be out in the next week or two. They pick a bunch of recently published books and through emails and blog posts, market them as great novels to take on holiday. It’s a promotion, pure and simple, but as many, many people do most of their reading on their summer holidays, the holiday season is too good an opportunity to miss.

So here are a few tips and ideas for promoting your novel as a holiday read.

  1. Start now. I know the school holidays don’t begin until late July. But don’t leave it until then, because the cruise ship will have sailed. Apart from anything else, plenty of people who don’t have children take their holidays before the resorts are overwhelmed by families. You don’t want to miss those relaxed singles and couples lazing on beaches in June and July.
  2. Plan a campaign. Run it over a few weeks. Work around a trio of pieces – a combination of blog posts and emails perhaps. Don’t just say the same thing over and over; build your picture by taking a different aspect of your novel each time. Leave a few days up to a couple of weeks between communications, and don’t do more than three pieces – you don’t want to annoy your potential readers.
  3. Think ‘Holiday’. If there’s anything about your book that relates specifically to holidays, travel, foreign lands, journeys or adventures for example, make the most of it in your promotion. It’s an extra angle.
  4. Have a price promotion. Discounting by even a little for a specified and limited time can be effective in boosting interest for practically anything. Everyone loves a bargain.
  5. Think beyond the internet. I know social media gets you a worldwide audience. But you’re a drop in an ocean of authors trying to attract readers. Think about your personal contact list, friends and neighbours, colleagues and the school-gate, clubs and organisations. Everyone belongs to multiple formal and informal networks and knows lots of people. You probably promoted your novel to them all when it first came out, but beyond your most loyal supporters, friends and family, there is still a community of potential readers; people who, with a gentle nudge, will like the idea of a holiday read, written by someone they actually know.
  6. Create a physical promotional piece. Because Singled Out is set on a summer holiday, this was a no-brainer for me. I’ve created a postcard-sized promotion using the image from the book cover. Duh, but it’s meant to look like a holiday postcard sent from a friend. I’ll be spreading it around over the next few weeks. I’m hoping it might end up hanging about on the front of a few fridges over coming months too. I used my cover designer (Alessio Varvarà) and VistaPrint to create the card. Other options – bookmarks (of course!), and for those on a very tight budget, simple home-printed leaflets. If you take that route, all you need is some best-quality paper (high gsm, sheen/gloss perhaps). It doesn’t have to cost the earth.
  7. Compile your own Summer Holiday Book Club list. It’s great to collaborate with other authors and recommended reads attract, guess what, readers. I’ll be putting an indie and small-press Summer Holiday Book Club list together for this blog in the next week or two, so, as they say, ‘watch this space’ for a fresh list of recommended reads.

On a summer reading list – and an unfortunate omission

Bookshop chain Waterstones (no apostrophe these days, harrumph) has announced its Book Club Summer Reads this week. The list is varied and for avid readers, promises a luscious literary experience across the coming months.

Unfortunately, my debut novel, Singled Out, has – I can only presume, in some hideous accidental oversight – been omitted from this list of good and great summer reads of 2015.

I can’t begin to understand how this ghastly blunder could possibly have happened. I am dumbstruck. I can but apologise, because this incomprehensible failure means that instead of a simple ‘click to buy’ from a colourful e-mail landing in your inbox, you’re going to have to embark on a hunt for Singled Out, trailing through the Amazon, all by yourself.

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxIf you’re into sinister tales taking place in delicious settings, your search for Singled Out will reward you with a gripping read. It’s a gritty psychological story about one woman’s struggle to overcome her demons and snare a dangerous stalker. It all takes place on a summer holiday for singles in Turkey, where strangers come together and nobody is quite who they seem.

Yes, you read that right. Summer… summer holiday. Hey, you guys at Waterstones…. summer holiday! Wouldn’t this alone qualify for a place on your Book Club Summer Reads list? Wouldn’t it? No?

Oh.

I know. It’s hardly selling in its thousands. It won’t make you book-business guys rich – at least, not overnight. But what about when the bidding war breaks out over those options on a movie or a TV mini-series – when world-renowned production companies are fighting over the rights and A-listers are begging for a role? Maybe then? What was that you said? Cloud-cuckoo land? Oh, don’t be mean, guys. Don’t hit me when I’m down.

Fair enough, I can’t deny it; demand has been, well, modest. The truth? Singled Out has yet to attain three figures in the Sales column – but it’s close, it is. Sort of. Close-ish. But just think what a place on that Book Club Summer Reads list would have done for it. And I’m not just saying this out of blatant self-interest either. I think I could safely argue that, with a little display ingenuity, there’s a profit to be had for any bookshop from my modest literary endeavours. What about those magic tables – the ones that everyone, but everyone, makes for when they come through the doors? Imagine for a moment, how appealing that sultry sunset on the cover of Singled Out would look on one of those tables by the entrance – the one that says ‘Hot New Authors’ or better still ‘Sizzling Summer Holiday Reads’ perhaps. Imagine all the book-buying money-spending hands that would reach out for it.

Yes, that would work.

But hey, the list is written, the emails are out and it’s too late for all that business. So all I can do is grumple away under my breath and shake my metaphorical fist at the Book Club selectors. It gets it off my chest a bit at least.

So, friends, followers and readers – an apology: I’m sorry you’ll have to go a-hunting for Singled Out. I’m sorry you won’t ever find it at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, or even your quirky little independent bookstore. I’m sorry it’s only on Amazon and that – for the time being at least – you’ll have to go further than Amazon’s Top 100 lists to track it down. But if you look, you’ll find it. It’s there for your Kindle (a perfect medium, if ever there was one, to take with you on your… holidays), and for the traditionalists amongst us, it’s there in paperback too.

As for the Waterstones Book Club recommendations, I cannot tell a lie. Notwithstanding that single sloppy omission, it’s a great selection. If you’re an avid reader like me, it’s worth a look – and it’s worth a few of your pennies/cents (only the ones you’ve got left after you’ve picked up Singled Out though).

Meantime, I hope you’ll forgive my shameless opportunism. When I got that Waterstones Book Club email this morning, I just couldn’t resist it.

Just one more thing… of course… Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

Singled Out: Launch + One Month – Full Disclosure

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxA month ago my first novel, Singled Out, was published on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats. Here’s how it’s gone since then…

I launched Singled Out on a largely unsuspecting world on 1st February 2015. Paperback and Kindle versions were priced at UK£8.49 and UK£2.99 (US$11.65 and US$4.60) respectively.

In the month since then, Singled Out has sold 66 copies, roughly 50% paperback and 50% Kindle e-book.

 I wasn’t sure what to expect and I’m not certain even now whether selling 66 copies of a debut self-published novel in the first four weeks is good, bad or indifferent.

One thing though; I believe I know – or know of – the majority of buyers. Many are friends and family, colleagues and clients, blogging buddies, neighbours, friends of friends and miscellaneous kind supporters and interested parties. To all of you, those I know, and those I don’t – I offer my deepest gratitude.

It’s been emotional

This last month I’ve been a bit all over the place. Other upsets and irritants have piled on top of what was always going to be an anxious time, fictionally speaking.

I’ve been surprised and touched, as several people I did not expect bought copies of Singled Out. I’ve also been overwhelmed by the kind words and largely positive feedback it’s received – both privately and through the first few 4-star and 5-star reviews which readers have been kind enough to post on Amazon and Goodreads.

But I’ve also felt as if I were sitting on the edge of a precipice, where one small nudge would send me toppling over.

A whisper of disillusionment

Like any debut author who has lately attempted to capture the interest of an agent and win that much sought-after representation, never mind the publishing deal, I can’t seem to escape the niggling whisper of disillusionment.

When it came to agent submissions, I tried, but I didn’t make the cut. I had hoped in vain that my novel was unique enough, well-written enough, compelling enough… And even though my rational brain understands the numbers game and the overwhelming odds against success, I cannot yet totally suppress my disappointment.

There are so many positives around taking ownership of your own destiny through self-publishing, and so many opportunities to capitalise upon. Things have changed and the agent/publishing deal route doesn’t have anything like as much to commend it as it used to. So why do I still feel like this?

I don’t know, but I do.

A sense of achievement

This is the other side of the scales. I do absolutely feel proud of my novel. I set out four years ago to see if I could perhaps, maybe pull together a half-decent piece of fiction. I didn’t know if I had enough imagination and creativity, or sufficient skill, for a novel-length story. I just wanted to give it a try. Four years and 90,000 words later, I had my answer.

The end result isn’t perfect – I’ve been learning all the way. But it’s a page-turning read (so say the reviews) and I am allowing myself to feel good about it. I was conscientious about the learning and the writing process and the many layers of editing; I love the cover design and I’m properly thrilled with the quality of the Createspace paperback. So there’s a satisfaction there, to temper the negatives, no doubt of it.

Stress, anxiety and fear – Gah!!

But here’s the stuff I didn’t expect – and it hit me like a bullet train. For the last month, I’ve felt spacey and nauseous. I’m waking a few times a night and seem unable to sleep beyond 5:00am. I’ve had back ache, neck ache, clusters of spots on my chin, palpitations and disturbed digestion.

Stress and anxiety symptoms; I know what they are, and I know they’ll pass sooner or later. They are the physical manifestation of my literary fears and worries… That people won’t buy my novel… that they will buy it but they won’t like it… that they’ll be bored by it… that they’ll be appalled by those odd moments that I’d intended to be gritty and edgy… that they’ll find a hundred typos… that I’ll only ever sell 66 copies… that it’s not good enough… that I’m not good enough… oh, and on, and on… Paranoia is a pathetic thing, isn’t it? Though I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this sense of my guts being reef-knotted and tugged upon, each day when I fail to resist the urge to check my CreateSpace reports, my KDP reports, my Amazon page, my Goodreads page, my Twitter feed, WordPress comments, Facebook page… Ugh.

What of the next 66 copies?

Sooner or later (more sooner than later, I fear) I’ll run out of ‘friendly’ buyers – by that, I mean those in my circle who will purchase a copy of Singled Out because they want to support and encourage the crazy author in their midst; or because they’re curious about the book I’ve been blamming on about these past four years. So it’s fair to assume the next 66 sales – and the 66 after that – may be a lot harder to come by.

I’m not yet sure what I’m going to do about those next 66 sales. I haven’t yet approached any independent reviewers. I’m going to continue playing in the blogosphere of course, but that’s because I enjoy it. Twitter taunts me – I don’t work it in the way that authors are urged to do, and I have to figure out where to go with this. I’m thinking about approaching some local bookshops, perhaps buying space at a local craft/artisan market, just to test the water. There’ll be a Goodreads promotion at some stage, maybe a campaign around holiday reading – I’d be stupid to let that opportunity pass me by, given the subject matter. There might be some paid-for advertising, but I’m not yet persuaded of its value.

One great thing about the way self-publishing works today is that the author is under relatively little financial pressure. Gone are the days when our garages would be piled to the ceiling with boxes of our treasured novels, a burdensome investment which must be sold for any profit to be realised. So I’ll be taking a steady-as-she-goes approach to marketing Singled Out, balancing these activities alongside my other work and the growing impetus I feel – heaven help me – to start writing the sequel.

One thing I’m certain of, and I’ve blogged it before here, is that I want to enjoy the marketing and promotion of Singled Out and that means not putting myself under undue pressure. So how long will it be before I see the next 66 sales?  I can’t rightly say, but if I make it in less than a month, I’ll let you know!

*  *  * 

Guess what! Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

Not so Singled Out after all: A lesson learned

How many books share the same title as mine? What, HOW many?

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxWay back, perhaps three years ago, when I began thinking about a title for Singled Out, I did a search on Amazon. At the time, Amazon determined there was just one other book with the same title. It was a non-fiction account of the two million single women left to fend for themselves after the First World War. I figured since this was so different from my own book, I could stand to share the name.

In retrospect (what a wonderful thing is hindsight), I should have checked once or twice more in the intervening months. If I had, I might have reconsidered.

I actually love my title and I believe it works for the book as it references the story in more than one way. I’ve been wedded to it since I first thought of it. Up until that point, Singled Out operated under the working title of SHN (that stood for Singles Holiday Novel – a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin private reference destined only for my MSWord folder and file structure).

But I wasn’t the only author to fall upon this simple, easily remembered moniker in the last three years. For now, as I look around Amazon and Goodreads, I find there are somewhere between six and twelve books in the English language under the same title (plus subtitle or part number in some cases). I haven’t been through them to see what they’re all about, but they seem to be a mix of fiction and non-fiction (mainly relationship and religious advice). Common sense tells me more will follow.

The self-publishing universe has exploded in the last three years – I’ve only fully acknowledged this in recent months myself. I confess, I have not once considered the possibility that my chosen title might have been quite so liberally deployed by other writers in the intervening months.

I’m not kicking myself for choosing this title, as I do feel it’s right for my story. I’m kicking myself for not appreciating in time, the pace at which the landscape has changed.

The fact is, short, snappy titles are unlikely to be original these days. Even the more creative and imaginative titles may eventually be taken up by others. So the challenge for the author – it’s one I’m happy to accept – is to distinguish themselves in other ways; through visual branding (a well-designed cover), their author profile, web site and blogging, wider social media presence and so on – so that no potential reader accidentally buys the ‘wrong’ book.

Self-Publishing – it’s a Fiddly Business

I set myself the task of preparing my manuscript for publishing on Amazon, Kindle and  paperback, over the Christmas break. Frazzled as I was by a bout of festive flu, it was… a challenge.

monster-426993_1280I got a virus for Christmas – not a PC one, a proper lung, throat, nose, ears and head one. It laid me low for two solid weeks. I felt like I’d been mugged. I was drained, sulky, achy, and very fed up. I coughed so long and hard my whole body ached. I lay in bed drenched in sweat; I lay on my sofa wrapped in a blanket. I survived on Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup and chocolate (thank goodness for my festive choco-fast break) and I sipped on water. Oh, ok, and the odd tot of brandy too – purely medicinal, you understand. My eyes were sticky, my brain was mush and my limbs were leaden. Whilst nothing but my cough reflex functioned, I took to hour after hour of TV; costume drama repeats – Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Treasure Island – and films I’d seen a dozen times before. When I could resist no longer, I went on to back-to-back episodes of Storage Hunters. Yes, friends, it was that bad.

When my brain began to solidify again and I could take a breath without coughing, I returned to my PC, to tackle the job I’d always intended to undertake over Christmas (ideally with an alert mind and an energetic sense of purpose) – that was, to get Singled Out ready for publication.

It’s great, really great, that indie authors can do this for themselves, but setting a book up for sale on Amazon is a convoluted process, make no mistake. It requires a clear head (clearer than the head I was given for Christmas, if I’m honest). There is a wealth of information to assist you, both from Amazon and external sources. But when push comes to shove, you have to stop reading and actually do it.

First thing was to get my MSWord manuscript into the correct format for CreateSpace. And that’s no picnic, because in publishing-land everything is arse-about-face and you have to get all twisty in your head to remember… the page you see on the left of your screen is actually the right-hand page, and the page you see on the right is, yes, actually on the left. Left/right, right/left – don’t you forget now.

I’d figured – and I think I was right – that it would be easier to create the Kindle version from the CreateSpace one, not vice-versa. CreateSpace offers a set of MSWord templates all correctly formatted (in terms of margins, headers and footers, at least) for the various book sizes they have available. I’d found the one I needed and made a first-pass at setup before Christmas. I received my first proof copies on 29th December. I was largely delighted. Some of the pages had printed, or been cut, a bit wonky. But CreateSpace have since assured me this was a production error and that their normal standards are higher than this, and if I had any similar complaints about final-print copies, I was to return them for a refund. I also realised I could correct a formatting error that I hadn’t at first seen a way around. This was: how to eliminate headers and footers from blank pages which may come at the end of a section. In the way these things sometimes work in my brain, I woke up at 4am one morning knowing exactly what I needed to do to fix it. I just wish my brain had delivered this particular gem before I ordered my first proof copies, not after. And preferably not at 4am either.

kindle-254339_1280So I made my corrections, submitted a revised pdf and ordered a second proof copy. Then I reformatted, minus headers and footers, for Kindle. Formatting for Kindle requires a totally contrary mindset from formatting for a pdf. Never mind the right-is-left, left-is-right issue, what you see is definitely not what you get. KDP helpfully provides a tool which enables you to see how your manuscript will appear on a range of devices, from which I realised that anomalies presented themselves everywhere. Headings don’t reproduce uniformly, some are larger, some are smaller, some centre, others don’t; some formats indent the first paragraph even if you haven’t; page endings have no relevance as different sized devices and the option to vary font size put paid to uniform layout. You just have to suck it up – which is tough, for a perfectionist with brain-fog.

The most frustrating thing I found was the way in which my manuscript appeared in iPad Kindle App format. Section and chapter headings showed up in standard type rather than heading format, but as I scrolled back and forth through the pages, the heading formats reappeared. I tried several different approaches to counteracting this problem before resorting to forum advice pages which told me I wasn’t the first to have this problem and that I shouldn’t worry because, no matter how it appeared on the manuscript tool, it would all be ok on the live version. Really? So why hasn’t anybody just fixed the manuscript tool – because it would have saved me three hours of fannying about.

So, I had my manuscripts. Thence to the rest of the process. The CreateSpace (paperback) and KDP (Kindle) versions require a virtually duplicate set of actions. There is some kind of form-filling for US tax purposes, even if you’re a UK taxpayer. Then the meta data and the blurb pages (two – one for Kindle, one for paperback, although apparently these somehow ‘find’ each other and unite at some point, so I’m advised). There are the Author Central pages (four – USA, UK, France, Germany – I did all of them) and multiple decisions on pricing (because VAT on e-books is, to say the least, a tricksy little issue since 1st January 2015, being different in every single country). With my flu-fogged brain, I’ve been back and forth, again and again, through these instructions – which are laid out differently for both CreateSpace and KDP (more helpfully for CreateSpace, I have to say). I accidentally put myself through an unintentional Kindle proof process, which cost me a day (annoying), but I think I’m there now.

Singled Out Proof Copies 29 Dec 14So as of today, I await my final final proof paperback, which I expect to be pleasingly immaculate. The Kindle version of Singled Out is uploaded and live on Amazon – for pre-order only at this stage, I’m afraid as I’m synchronising Kindle and paperback launches to 1st February.

Now all I need to do is set a bit of marketing in motion. Easy, right? For a marketer like me? Oh, but no, no. This is a whole different game to the business-to-business marketing I’ve been doing all my working life. As usual in this self-publishing game, there is myriad advice out there – dare I say too much advice? I’m wading through it, picking-and-mixing what I feel I can manage, for starters.

I’ve realised some author publishers are outputting at a seriously intensive level, marketing like crazy and selling tens or hundreds of thousands of books a year. Others are lucky to carve a niche amongst friends and family and shift a few dozen copies. Not surprisingly, I see myself as somewhere in between the two. I have just one book at the moment. There won’t be another one along for upwards of a year. I am just not the kind of writer who will ever turn out a torrid tome every few weeks, I know it.

I wonder if any of you already self-published authors out there could give me a feel for the sort of volumes I might anticipate? You know, a stake in the ground somewhere between a dozen and a hundred thousand… I’d like to know whether, for example, I should be delighted or dismayed by sales in the few dozens, hundreds or even… thousands. OK, I’m pretty sure I should be delighted by sales in the thousands. But should I have a target? A sales volume below which I regard myself as under-achieving, and above which I can allow myself to feel a little bit joyous? Does it make a difference that I’m a UK author, not an American? I honestly don’t know these things.

And one more thing, in the spirit of sharing the self-publishing love… if you, as a self-published author, could only do one thing to market your book, what would that be? What one marketing activity above all others have you found the most powerful and productive? Will you share it?

Here’s the Proof!

Singled Out Proof Copies 29 Dec 14You’re probably fed-up of sharing my writer’s journey by now. But in case you’re not – my proof copies of Singled Out arrived from CreateSpace in the USA today. The expedited delivery charges (I have no patience) cost more than the two copies I ordered.

Yes, my story, in a real book format. I’m quite absurdly excited!

All looks good so publication (paperback and Kindle e-book) is still happily on-target for early February and I’m going to try and set up the e-book for advance orders too.

Today’s job is to begin setting up my author website via WordPress. Hopefully, this blog will transfer neatly and seamlessly across in due course. But I’m not massively technical and things can and do go wrong for me when coding and the interweb is involved. So if you have any suggestions as to how to accomplish this without accidentally abandoning my 2,700 or so wonderful subscribers – I’d love to hear from you!

I’ve got it Covered

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on the cover design for Singled Out. Not that I’ve been designing the cover myself… I placed a brief with crowdsourcing design site 99Designs. Here’s how I got on…

There are many ways you can get a cover for your self-published novel. You can design it yourself, although many are the respected sources which advise against this. You can use the template design capabilities available through Kindle and CreateSpace. If you’re lucky enough to find one which fits with your story, you can buy an off-the-shelf cover from several websites. Those with deeper pockets can work on a one-to-one basis with a freelance cover designer of their choice, many of whom have a great deal of experience with traditional publishers.

Or… you can do as I did and place your brief as a contest on 99Designs, and see what comes along.

99Designs works like this: Your brief constitutes a contest. The fee you choose to pay is the award which goes to the eventual winner of the contest. You can select to award at Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum levels and you deposit the requisite sum with 99Designs via Paypal. I chose the Bronze level, as I wasn’t sure how the process would work for me and I didn’t want to risk too much. The higher the award, so 99Designs advises, the higher the number of entries and the more experienced the designers. 99Designs also offered me some kind of an uplift package free-of-charge – I’m not sure if they do this for everyone, or if I had arrived on the site at some opportune moment. Each contest lasts one week at which point, unless there’s a good reason not to, you select your winner.

I looked through several recent contests and noted how people prepared their briefs. Then I created my own, outlining what sort of book I’d written, the setting, tone and other key elements. I gave a feel for the kind of a cover I thought I was looking for and a few pointers on what I might like or dislike. I also populated an  iStock lightbox with a few stock photos, so designers could see the sort of imagery I envisaged for my cover.   I uploaded my brief, and I waited…

I was overwhelmed – in a good way – by the response. I genuinely hadn’t expected to see so many concepts, from so many designers. Some were, let’s not beat-about-the-bush, truly awful. WordArt, ClipArt and Photoshop seemed to be the tools of choice for a small contingent of hopefuls. But many entries were thoughtfully put together and had interesting elements. And some were stand-out. Designers came from right across the globe – I didn’t check them all, but I noted Germany, Romania, Italy, Venezuela, USA, India and the Philippines amongst the locations of those who entered my contest.

The contest owner is supposed to rate each concept with 1-5 stars and eliminate those they don’t favour. I offered a positive or helpful response to as many as possible and after a day or so, the quality and focus of the designs improved correspondingly. By the end of the contest I had seen over 180 designs. That’s around 80-100 unique concepts, plus variants arising from my feedback.

I noticed certain things; one or two designers seemed particularly engaged with my contest, delivering several concepts, responding quickly to my comments and suggestions, refining their designs, developing variations on a theme. It helped me identify not only the good designs, but the good designers – the ones who felt an affinity with my project. I shortlisted three and from that, it was a small step to select my winner.

There’s plenty of opportunity to liaise with your designer(s) as the contest progresses and I imagine the more diligently you do this, the better the outcome. I made a proper nuisance of myself, but my winning designer was infinitely patient and helpful, and produced a cover design for Singled Out – in Kindle and paperback formats – that I’m totally delighted with.

A mock-up of the cover design for Singled Out

The winner of my contest was Alessio Varvarà, an art and design student from Palermo, Italy. His username on 99Designs is alsov . Not only did he create the winning design and a selection of six or seven alternatives which I had great difficulty choosing between (because they were all so right for my story), but he was endlessly patient in adapting his designs in accordance with my comments and observations. He did far more than I expected – and far more than was justified by the fee/award. As a result, I have a design which would hold its own in any bookshop, and which I’m immensely proud of.

Alessio has already completed a second small project for me – that’s the design of a set of pre- and post-release banners for my blog, Facebook and Twitter profiles. Once again, he exceeded my expectations. I’m actually sorry I don’t have another project for Alessio just yet; it has been a genuine pleasure to work with such a talented and enthusiastic young designer.

So, do you like my cover? I know these things are subjective, but for me, it encapsulates the themes and tone of my novel perfectly – the juxtaposition of dark goings-on in a blissful setting. When Singled Out is published in February 2015, you too might be the judge of this. Meantime, I simply offer my warmest endorsement of my designer Alessio/alsov and the 99Designs process, which worked brilliantly for me.

Top Ten Takeaways: Self-Publishing in the Digital Age Seminar

fountain-pen-447575_1280I spent a fascinating day last weekend crammed into an airless room with 100 other would-be self-publishers. It was time (and money) well spent.

Bloomsbury Publishing’s Writers & Artists brand does a nice line in help and advice for would-be writers, whether we want to try our luck in the traditional publishing environment (as in W&A’s seminar How to Hook an Agent which I attended a few months ago – and blogged about here) or take the independent route.

The first half of the event ranged through editing and cover design to publishing via Amazon and alternative ‘assisted’ routes to self-publishing and marketing. The afternoon centred around the real-life experiences of several self-published authors and their varied approaches to the business of getting their words out there and noticed.

I’m not going to brain-dump the whole event. I don’t suppose W&A would thank me for that since if they’ve got an eye on what the market is looking for, they will doubtless be running and re-running this excellent seminar in the future. Instead, I’m offering you what I felt were my Top Ten Takeaways in terms of information, insight and advice for the would-be independent author.

(1)          Hope for the Future

The landscape has changed rapidly in the last couple of years with the stigma previously associated with self-publishing in its various forms now disappearing into the distance. Self-publishing is no longer traditional publishing’s embarrassing poor relation. It is, in the words of Dr Alison Baverstock, ‘part of publishing’.

(2)          Proof of Concept

Self-publishing is now regarded as a feeder to traditional publishing. Instead of wading through what is often branded the slush pile, agents and publishers are increasingly seeking talent amongst the self-published charts. If a book sells and if the author seems to understand what’s required to market it – then they’re an attractive proposition for the traditional publishing space (IF, that is, they can be persuaded to cross the trad/indie divide…).

(3)          The Professionals

Rapid change and the shifting fortunes of publishing houses has led to many skilled former employees now offering their services freelance to independent authors. The indie author now has access to skilled professionals – editors, illustrators, cover designers and more – to help them elevate the quality of their self-published books.

(4)          The Critical Role of Editing

All three phases are vital: Developmental (for help with story, structure etc), copy editing (to iron out oddities and inconsistencies, correct grammar, stylistic issues etc) and proof reading (elimination of those itty-bitty sneaky little typos). The focus is on achieving a professional finish and making your book the best it can be before you share it with the world.

(5)          Planning Ahead

Good editors are booked up well in advance. The time to start thinking about signing-up with an editor is before your manuscript is finished. Don’t expect an overnight turnaround either. Your editor will take around 6-8 weeks to review and return your manuscript.

(6)          You’ve got it Covered

Don’t underestimate the importance of a professionally designed cover. It must reflect the genre of your book (so readers know what to expect) and be eye-catching at thumbnail size. Budget anything between £90 and £350 for a professionally designed cover.

(7)          It’s all in the Brand

When you’re getting your cover designed, don’t forget to think about other marketing materials which may help to promote your book and strengthen your brand – designs for website, blog and facebook banners for example, bookmarks, flyers, business cards, promotional postcards.

(8)          Kindle is HUGE

Don’t undervalue this soft media as not being a real book (I’ve heard this a lot). Amazon sells around twice as many Kindle e-books as print books in the USA and the UK isn’t far behind. Kindle owners are adventurous and speculative readers, buying around four times as many books as non-Kindle users. This is seriously good news for the indie author who can manage to conquer the mountain of discoverability

(9)          Discoverability – the Holy Grail of Self-Publishing

More people are buying books on-line than ever before. They’re searching using keywords to find genres and subject matter that intrigues them. But with the stock of self-published material growing daily, discoverability is critical to success.  Your self-published book is but a blip, a note written in disappearing ink pinned to a tree in a vast forest, unless you can get it in front of readers. Being discoverable means getting your meta-data (all your book details) working for you on Amazon. Being discoverable means getting somewhere on the Amazon/Kindle rankings for your genre (a clue… it’s better for chart success to sell lots of books in bursts rather than steadily). Being discoverable means being active and engaged all over social media, blogging, building an e-mail list, cultivating interest and loyalty in readers, one reader at a time. Being discoverable means garnering a host of good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and a whole bunch of reader forums, genre and review sites. Being discoverable means getting creative with promotions and making use of every tool in the Amazon author toolkit.

(10)        Don’t Write Shit!

(Those, by the way, were the exact words used by the presenter!) This last point was echoed by every speaker. Everything begins with you having created a great book. None of this will do anything for you if you haven’t done the first job, which is to write a ripping good read.

So that’s simple then.

That’s it. I’m finished. (Again…)

eggs-14177_640Some time ago I wrote about completing my edits and finally having Singled Out – the finished article – ready to submit to agents. Okay, so I was wrong. But I’m really, really finished now. Honest.

Last September 2013 – over a year ago – I fancied I’d finished my book. I was happy with it, as happy as one could be with a first attempt anyway. Several passes through the text had resulted in me reducing an unwieldy 107,000 word draft down to 97,000 words, more acceptable to agents and publishers – apparently. I’d sweated blood over a synopsis and cover letter and begun to fire my story off to a succession of agents. Over the ensuing weeks there were flickers of interest here and there but nine months later, nobody had bitten my arm off for the rights to market my book.

Cut to July 2014 – and several months since I’d read more than the odd paragraph of Singled Out. Having considered the full manuscript, a couple of agents had offered me a few lines of critique. Ignore these courtesies at your peril, I thought. So I decided to take another look at my story to see if I could address the issues raised in their feedback. I passed the not-so-finished novel to two or three more beta readers too and significantly, I read it again myself from beginning to end.

Have you ever put a piece of work down and come back to it after several months? Then you’ll know what I found, and you’ll understand my crisis of confidence. So, so many surplus words, lines and whole paragraphs; description overload, formulaic chapter openers; language I thought was gritty but now just made me blush; motivations that didn’t quite add up; character clichés; pitiful pacing… I could go on.

Okay, it wasn’t a total disaster but what with the agents’ feedback and my beta readers’ comments too, it was easy to see a thorough review was required. Fortunately, with the benefit of distance came the ability to detach, to disown aspects of my narrative that I’d been so precious about, to murder those darlings and get ruthless. So I made a start.

The last three months have been, as they say, emotional.

At the outset and for several weeks I hated Singled Out. I was one small step from shoving it in a drawer and forgetting all about it. I resented the fact that as I took account of both agents’ and beta readers’ critique and began making changes, it seemed no longer to be the book I’d set out to write; it was trying to be something different. In the meantime it was a bugger’s muddle, all bent out of shape. It felt as if I were shoehorning things into the text to turn it into something it wasn’t. It felt as if I’d lost my way with it. Teeth gritted, I plodded on, resenting my mashed-up, mangled manuscript.

I was in the throes of a proper writerly temper tantrum.

I don’t know quite when it was, but a couple of weeks ago, I started to get it. Perhaps things had to get worse before they got better (you know that cliché about breaking a few eggs to make an omelette). I can’t tell you exactly what I did, because I honestly don’t know. But I started to feel better about my book. It had gone through another two end-to-end edits; I’d added four or five scenes, moved a few things around, played with a couple of the characters, injected odd moments of uncertainty and dismissed another 7,000+ words. And you know what? I actually feel quite a lot happier with it now.

The best thing is, I’m excited by Singled Out again, and excited by the decision I’ve made to self-publish early in 2015. For a start, I can’t face touting it round again when I know the chances of it gaining traction with an agent – let alone a publisher – are meagre to non-existent. Secondly, I’ve come to see self-publishing in a  different light. I want to manage my own destiny, put my story out there and see what people think of it. And… I want to get on and write the next one.

So that’s the plan. I’m doing my homework on self-publishing and aim to get to grips with all the necessaries in the coming few weeks, then publish in the New Year.

Then… I’ll just hold my breath.