The Great Debate: Indie v Mainstream?

 by Margaret Skea

Put a group of fledging or would-be [Helen: or even established!] authors together and the Indie v Mainstream debate is almost guaranteed to be part of the conversation. It’s a hot topic and there are probably as many different opinions as there are folk to discuss it. Which is a roundabout way of saying that what follows is only my opinion, but based on experience of both sides of the ‘fence’. 

It went like this. 

1) I wrote a novel. 
2) I dreamt of having it published…becoming a best-seller…a Holywood blockbuster…(well maybe not quite that, but you get the idea).
3) I queried agents and, like most would-be authors, began collecting rejection slips. Not enough to paper the walls, but enough to be dispiriting. 

Enter Harper Collins and Alan Titchmarsh and the chance to submit my novel in their joint competition for unpublished novelists. 


After I won the Historical Fiction section of that competition I’d thought I’d have no trouble in finding an agent, especially when recommended by a Harper Collins editor – right? 

Wrong. 

My second agent trail was no more successful than the first – they could see why I won the competition and liked (and in some cases loved) my writing, but no-one could see it selling to other than a Scottish publisher and in the words of one agent ‘That makes it uneconomic to sell on your behalf.’ There were two other problems – my main character wasn’t female – a male lead was a much harder sell, aside from the ‘swords and sandals’ – type books, which mine wasn’t, and (perhaps most bizarre of all) it was ‘too well written to be truly commercial’. 

I decided to go it alone. No, not the Indie route, though I did consider that (who wouldn’t?) but I didn’t feel confident that I had the technical skills to negotiate all the potential pitfalls and make a good job of it. (Nor the money to pay for good professional help). Instead I decided to approach publishers direct. Now in the UK you’re not really supposed to do that, but I did have a cunning plan. 

I wrote a three sentence email query to five publishers: introducing me, the book and the competition win, offered to send sample chapters and pasted the first page of the novel into the body of the email, reckoning that while they likely wouldn’t open an attachment, curiousity would probably ensure that they scrolled down the page.  

Net result: four requests for sample chapters, closely followed by three requests for the full manuscript and one (imagine me hyper-ventilating here) offer to publish based on the three chapters alone. In the end, after considering two offers and swithering about waiting to hear from the other two publishers, I decided on the ‘bird in the hand basis’ to take the first one. – The contract was signed before they read the full thing and I had a few restless nights hoping they when they did they wouldn’t change their mind! I’m pretty sure that my appearances on the AT Show had a lot to do with it, even if I did feel like a rabbit caught in car headlights while it was being filmed. And for the record Alan T. is as lovely as you might imagine him to be – generous, encouraging and kind.

The real excitement began when my ten copies of the paperback arrived, courtesy, as I thought, of the publisher. (It turns out the printer supplies 10 free copies as a matter of course.) The launch in Waterstones in Edinburgh was exciting too, as was signing oodles of books, and the incredible sense of achievement that I’d bagged that elusive mainstream deal. 

Launch of Turn of the Tide at Waterstones.
So far, so good. My first print review – in Scottish Field Magazine – was mercifully positive and the paperbacks were selling – slowly, but still. And to see a bookshop window full of my book was amazing. 

There are many positives in the mainstream route: in-built credibility, all the expenses of publication covered by the publisher, particularly a print run, and immediate eligibility for professional bodies such as the Society of Authors and also, in my case, the Historical Writers Association.

Masons of Melrose
There are also negatives: lack of control, especially of marketing, and no direct inter-face with Amazon; little knowledge of how book sales are going aside from the (once or twice a year) royalties statement; and of course the economics of it all – once I’d earned out my advance I received the princely sums of £0.89 for every paperback sold and £0.29 for every ebook. I understand the economics of the paperback production and don’t actually begrudge the publisher their whack for that, but the ebook? £0.29 – really? 

Writing colleagues who had self-published knew exactly how their books were doing, had the freedom to market as they pleased, and significantly increased royalties. 

Fast forward to early this year and my (one year late) completion of A House Divided, the sequel to Turn of the Tide. I contacted the publisher, who had an option on it, to discover that in the meantime they had bought over another publishing house and were up to their eyes with books in the pipeline, so that it was unlikely there’d be any chance of publication before 2017, and even that wasn’t guaranteed. 

In the circumstances it wasn’t a hard decision to re-invest money made from the first book and self-publish the second, and in effect become a ‘hybrid’ author – with a foot in both camps. What was hard was deciding exactly how. Print run v POD? Doing the editing / cover design / formatting etc myself, or contracting it out? Using a firm who would look after everything, or individually arranging the professional services required?

In the end I decided 
1) to set up a publishing imprint
2) to do a print run (1000 copies)
3) to oversee the whole process myself, but to buy in services as needed. 

I was fortunate, and was able to contract the same cover designer and printer that the publisher had used for the first book, thus ensuring a good physical ‘match’ between the two. I then negotiated an agreement with the current distributor of Turn of the Tide that they would take on A House Divided, which I hoped would solve the problem of how to get it into bookshops. And finally I found a copy-editor (worth his weight in gold) and a formatter to prepare the ms for both print and e-versions, and I set the publication date – 15th October. And when two mainstream bookshops offered to host a launch, I accepted both – one in Edinburgh and one in my local area.

Five and a half months seemed ample time to get everything done, but on reflection another six –eight weeks would have taken a lot of the stress out of the process – but I got there in the end – just. The printer, distributor and bookshop were all quite relaxed, but if the stories of sending a taxi from Edinburgh to London to pick up needed books were intended to calm me down, they failed miserably. And in the middle of all the organizing I made another, momentous, decision – to negotiate back the rights to the first book. So with two weeks to go until launch day I became a fully-fledged member of the Indie community. And with just three days to go, the physical copies of the new novel arrived, and to my great relief were exactly what I’d hoped for. 

Eight weeks into my new life as a ‘publisher’ things seem to be going well – A House Divided has been reviewed in a national newspaper - not a ‘luvvie’ but some complementary comments, with no significant negatives, and it’s been chosen for a Reading Agency promotion. The award of an Hawthornden Writing Fellowship  2016 came at just the right time, resulting in two full-page feature articles in different local newspapers, which has all helped in promotional terms and I have to admit to being quietly optimistic. 

Am I glad I made the shift ? – Definitely. Would I ever go back to a mainstream publisher?  Possibly, but the deal would need to be very tempting. In the meantime I’m enjoying being in control and delighted to have that most tricky of off-spring – a second book – under my belt.
Time to start the third.

I love my new logo and am looking forward to the time when all the physical copies will proudly display it.     
     







And finally, thank you  to Helen for inviting me onto her blog, and to all those who helped make my new venture possible. 
[Helen: you're welcome Margaret!]

Latest - Awarded an Hawthornden Fellowship for 2016.

Turn of the Tide: Winner of the Beryl Bainbridge Best First Time Author Award  

Sequel - A House Divided -  published 15th October 2015

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Visit my webpage: www.margaretskea.com
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37 comments:

  1. Hi,
    I am surprised at the publshers neglect of Margaret and I can certainly understand why she decided the self-publish route for her second book. Here you have freedom of action but for most of us it's the access to the media and the cost of publicity that creases us. Fortunately as well as being a writer I am also a graphic designer and photographer which helps but we still have our hands tied. I wish Margaret Skea well in her endeavours as I do Helen Hollick.

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    1. Thanks Roy - I agree with you!

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    2. Thank you, Roy. Promotion is tricky, but I'm beginning to find ways of getting free publicity - today an editor of a free magazine with a 15,000 distribution came to interview me for a feature. - as a result of me writing to the magazine and asking if they'd be interested - it's always worth trying - after all the worst that can happen is that they say 'no'.

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  2. Great story. Exhilarating experience! And good luck with the launch. Would you mind sharing the name of your copy-editor?

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    1. I'll leave Margaret to answer Rachel - thank you for dropping by my blog!

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    2. Hi Rachel, I'm more than happy to pass on the name of my copy-editor - he's Richard Sheehan - website: http://www.richardmsheehan.co.uk (Hope that's ok posting this here, Helen)

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  3. Wonderful and informative post. I am with a very small press but still like self publishing my books for the control. That being said, someday I do hope to have an agent and publish through a medium to large publisher.

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    1. I prefer the 'in control' bit as well Lindsay - the hard part is getting foreign rights and translations, for that you really do need an agent :-(

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    2. That's my dream scenario - to be able to control the UK print / ebook myself and have an agent to handle all the foreign and ancillary rights... I wish, but Alison Morton has just done it, so I'm allowed to dream!

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  4. Great perspective from someone with experience on both sides of this debate! Thanks, Margaret.

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  5. Thanks, Helen and Margaret, for this post. I've self-published two books and would like the opportunity to work with a publisher on the third. What I really want is an agent, though, someone to help navigate the international waters.

    By the way, Margaret, your book covers are wonderful.

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  6. Great post. I think once you've been in total control it becomes dificult to relinquish it. And having read yuour second book, I can just say BOY am I glad you went through with it!

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  7. I'm glad it all worked out for you, Margaret.
    Karen Charlton, author of The Detective Lavender Mysteries

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    1. Thank you, Karen, it was definitely a steep learning curve, but oh so worth it.

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  8. Hi Margaret. Thank you for sharing your experience. Would you give me an idea of what to expect a copy editor to charge?

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    1. Juliette that is a 'how long is a piece of string question I'm afraid: it is entirely dependent on the copy-editor and the length of your book, you're looking at £300/$400 upwards at least.

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    2. Hi Juliette, from what I have seen the 'norm' for established copy-editors who have a good reputation seems to be in the range of £7 - £10 per thousand words - not cheap, but well worth it.

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  9. A very interesting blog, Margaret. One of the points I would make is that, as far as publicity goes, even a writer published by a very well established publishing House has to do most of the promotion themselves – so exactly what are you paying them most of the profits for? I don't self publish, instead I signed up with a small publisher. Not as much money gets spent on advertising, but the closer interaction helps a lot. All the very best with A House Divided!

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    1. You are so right Gerry! The only writers who don't need to concern themselves with marketing are the very top ones (J.K.R. for instance) The rest of us have to plod along!

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    2. Agreed, Gerry - aside from the big names, marketing is part of every author's job now - the hardest part as far as I'm concerned.

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  10. Thanks for sharing this insider account of publishing. It's a long and windy road (after you write the thing)! My first novel comes out in March, and I work on PR stuff every day all day.

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    1. Good luck with your book - if it's Historical Fiction do be sure to contact me about reviewing it for the Historical Novel Society (I'm Managing EDitor for Indie Reviews)

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    2. I hope you can still get a chance to write, Aaron - but you're probably right in starting way before publication.

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  11. Sounds so familiar. I've self-published two novels and after another run around a couple of publishing houses, I'm self-pubbing a third. I know I have a lot of work to do in marketing it, but I've build a fan base that is starting to look for my work. I can't wait to launch it.

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    1. The marketing is hard - but can be so rewarding! One of the nicest things is meeting such lovely people!

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    2. Good luck with it, History Writer, your fan base will be waiting!

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  12. Helen,
    Your last comment about "rewarding" and "meeting lovely people" through self-publishing is spot-on. Certainly, my one most outstanding "lovely" is you: always helpful to others, featuring many HF authors on your blog (a lot of extra work), and of course your untiring work with the Historical Novel Society.

    Margaret,
    Great Article highlighting an ever-lasting debate; for me, after years of "pink slips," it was a no-brainer to go solo. What an outstanding opportunity. Yes, there was and still is a lot to learn; and I haven't hit the jackpot yet. "Hope springs eternal..."
    Best wishes with your writing; love your foreboding covers.

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    1. (for some reason these two comments haven't formatted correctly - oh well, never mind) Thank you Inge - I enjoy helping and 'meeting' other authors, nd most in return help me of course!

      Margaret: I think all of us are waiting to hit that jackpot, even a small win would be sufficient... and as you say 'hope springs eternal..." LOL

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    2. Thank you, for commenting, Inge - it's nice to hear that I've struck a chord and I'm glad you love the covers - the designer is great at capturing what I want. Re jackpot - knowing that folk enjoy what you write is a jackpot in my opinion.
      PS Helen, it was Inge mentioning hope... and I hope we all hang on to it for whatever our writing goals are.

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  13. Interesting - it sounds as if the publisher would have eventually published the second book (?), but highlights the time involved in getting a book out there traditionally when things change within the company... editorial changes and takeovers are not good for authors' careers! With a sequel to a successful book, it makes perfect sense to go the quicker route. Congratulations on your success, Margaret.

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    1. Thank you, Katherine - Hopefully I can build on it and branch out further into Audio and so on. Equally hopefully this story will encourage other reluctant potential Indie Authors to have the courage of their convictions and go for it, if the traditional route isn't working for them. The key (imo) is making sure the end product is professional, however it's produced.

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    2. Thanks for dropping by my blog Katherine: Margaret you are right - the impression of a professional result - for editing, overall presentation and a professional-looking cover (and then also professional standard marketing) is so important!

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