Taking the Plunge as a Self-Publisher – Guest Post by Derek Birks

FEUD by Derek BirksA few weeks ago, Derek Birks stopped by the blog and posted a comment on Who to Believe Readers or Editors. It seems that Derek and I had something in common – readers who love our novels and editors who say nice things but ultimately reject them. Derek has self-published FEUD and I asked him for advice. Here is his very thoughtful response.
Before I took the plunge and self-published my first book online as an e-book I was pretty sure it would be a big mistake. Well, the jury is still out on that one because so far my experience has been very mixed. This is not a “rags to riches” story. I’m writing this in the hope that if others have had similar experiences to me they will be encouraged to learn that they are not the only ones.
Let me say at the outset that no-one forced me to take this route and no-one owes me their attention. I was rather naive when I started. My thought process was quite simple: my book was well written – even agents said so and I’d done more work on it since I last submitted it to any agents – therefore readers of historical fiction would want to read it and would be prepared to pay a modest sum for the pleasure of doing so.
Well, there will be a lot of you out there thinking: “what a muppet!” What I had not taken on board, of course, was that there were thousands of books sitting out there in the ether and all the authors thought their books were pretty darn good. Also many of those authors – unlike me at the start – were working their little socks off to get their books noticed.  Slowly it dawned on me that no-one was going to buy my book because hardly anyone on the planet knew of its existence and most of those who did thought: “mmm…self-published? E-book? It’ll be rubbish.”
Armed with this life changing revelation, I discovered book blogs and started to contact review sites to ask for reviews. Again, at first I just didn’t quite appreciate how many authors there are out there seeking reviews. Given that, I’m amazed that some kind bloggers agreed to review it. I’m also staggered that they have the time to do so and the patience to deal with so many requests. Some reviewers didn’t reply to my email – and I don’t blame them, life’s too short!
Inevitably I got a bit depressed about all this and began to question the quality of the book – was I kidding myself that it was worth reading at all? But the feedback from those who read it was consistently great and that small crumb of comfort kept me believing in it.
When I got a 5* review from the Historical Novel Review and Feud appeared on the Great Historicals site, I thought: at last now things will really take off. Well, I sold a few more books, which was good, but I didn’t really feel that lift off in any tangible form had taken place.
Promoting any aspect of ‘me’ – as those who know me will verify – is a struggle for me. It’s not my natural method because I’m normally fairly laid back and low key about what I do. Nevertheless, I set up a Twitter account – thanks to daughter Katie’s patient instructions – and then set about establishing an “online presence.” As a result I’ve met some really nice people, all of whom love books. I carry on with Twitter because I enjoy using it and the short snappy communication suits me, but I’m not sure it has much impact in terms of promoting the book. As we all know, self-promotion becomes wearisome to others after a very short while.
Where does all this leave me? Well, I’m taking the long term view – which is what I should have done to start with. Since I want to become a published writer I must expect that it is not going to happen overnight. So I am dividing my time between writing the sequel to Feud – which I am loving – and trying to persuade lovers of historical fiction and action novels to read it – which I don’t find quite so easy!
I am not saying “keep going, there is light at the end of the tunnel”; I am saying “there might be light at the end but you may as well enjoy the tunnel while you’re in it.”
There are two reasons why I now feel quite relaxed about the whole process.
One is a comment a complete stranger posted upon reading Feud: “the pace took all sense of time away.” If someone can say that, then I’m not going to spend another minute worrying about whether it sells or not.
The other reason is that I can now see the second book – the sequel to Feud – taking shape. It is developing day by day, month by month, from the first ideas into a genuine story. And, as every fiction writer knows, the thrill is in creating the characters and guiding them as they take your story by the scruff of the neck and make it come alive. What more could I want?
FEUD by Derek Birks
In 1459 England stands on the brink of chaos. The most powerful nobleman in the land, Richard of York, and the weak king, Henry of Lancaster, prepare to settle their differences on the battlefield. As the rule of law breaks down all over England old scores are being settled.
For a long time the Elders and the Radcliffes have been, at best, uncomfortable neighbours but when Ned Elder’s father and brother are murdered and his sisters abducted by the Radcliffes, the young knight is forced to flee from his home. His sister Emma is torn from the quiet solitude of her household and forced into marriage. Eleanor, her wild and beautiful younger sister, is condemned to imprisonment in a remote nunnery.
But neither Ned nor his sisters are willing to concede all to the Radcliffes without a fight. And so the feud begins and the fate of the Elders will hang upon more than just Ned’s skill with a sword, but on the courage of his sisters and the girl he loves, as the feud is played out amid the blood and misery of the Wars of the Roses. 

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12 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. My plan is to self-publish when I finish my novel, and I feel more informed about the realities of it! Best wishes on your books.

  2. Derek, your experience is very close to my own. I wrote what I believe –as well as many others — a good novel. Kirkus Reviews called Zemsta a “gem” that “charmed with its vintage hue.” But like your book, the sales of Zemsta are sporadic. At first I was terribly disappointed, but came to the conclusion that if my reviews are good (for the most part), then I’ve written a good book. Of course, I had to take “making money” out of the equation, which also made it easier to view the entire experience in a positive light. Thanks for the excellent post.

      1. Well…I am slowly writing another book, although I can’t tell you when I might get really serious about it. I have the plot, characters, era figured out, but have been poking along on actually writing it. In due time…

  3. Derek,
    One aspect of self-publishing that rarely gets mentioned is that before Amazon came on the scene, self-publishing was a rip-off industry that separated writers from their money and provided no distribution whatever. Nowadays, self-publishing is very affordable and provides almost instant gratification (after y-e-a-r-s of writing, of course.) What more could you ask for? In the old days, very nice stories and interesting concepts would never have seen the light of day. In this case, technology has not only saved the book, it has created far more opportunities for independent authors. There has never been a better time to be a writer.

    1. Yes Rachel, I agree up to a point, especially if you go into it with your eyes open. I have concerns though about the ever diminishing prices of ebooks which seems somehow to devalue the writer’s craft. There are more opportunities than ever before but I don’t think the publishing business as a whole knows what to do with them.

      1. The writer’s craft will never be diminished because his job is to come up with original stories and concepts. Since this falls under the category of an “abstraction”, the product is harder to commercialize than say, chainsaws or butter. We know the price of a toothbrush, a Mercedes Benz, a power drill, but how do you put a price on an abstract concept or idea? Traditionally, the NY Publishers thrived by holding a quasi-monopoly status over the dissemination of ideas. They protected themselves through a price-fixing mechanism that was never threatened until Jeff Bezos came along. With Amazon in the picture, the onus is on the writer to discover new ways to build up demand for his products, and find the correct price that the market will bare with happiness and contentment. (Remember, the entertainment industry is all about pleasing the customer, allowing him to achieve a higher state of “happiness” through the product.) The beauty of digital is that the supply is infinite and has no direct bearing on the price of the product. Therefore, it’s a total demand function. So work on building up demand!!

  4. Thank you Mary for posting the interview. Derek, you are definitely not alone. I don’t promote either of my novels as much as I should mainly because I value my writing time more than my publicising time! I work full time so I really have to manage my free time carefully. Like you I self published after (in my case) a depressing number of rejections and I am so glad I did. A lot of the very elderly people who I interviewed and who helped me with my research on Tomaree, lived to see the book published. I do believe that eventually I will find a major publisher but knew it wouldn’t be during the lifetime of most people who were young in WWII. All the best, you have the right attitude, I believe. The writing must take precedence!

  5. Yes, Rachel. I welcome the freeing up of pricing but I tend to take the view that whatever the value of a book, it’s not 20p. I don’t think the very low pricing is demand driven at all, it’s the same kind of business policy as you rightly referred to before digital came along. I think there will be a lot more chaos in publishing before any sort of manageable equilibrium comes along. It’s an exciting world!

  6. It’s refreshing to see a self-publishing story that isn’t about ridiculous success that only a handful of authors can achieve. Thanks for sharing, and still giving hope at the same time.

  7. I have a friend who self-published about 1 1/2 years ago. In the first year his sales were less than 20. But he persevered, made contacts, did several giveaways and his sales are now in the very exciting 30,000+ range. It can be done… I’m mainstream published, but not a clue how sales are going – should get my first royalty statement soon. Sometimes I envy my self-published friends who have total control over promotions etc.

    1. Hi Margaret
      Yes, I think it’s the tortoise approach that seems to work. Quite a number of self-published authors have said that so I’ll await success… eventually.

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