When, a few years ago, I was dropped by my publisher (“disappointing sales” was the reason given), my agent set about trying to find a new home for two of my manuscripts. For two years we got what’s known in the trade as “rave rejections” in which editors said basically, “We love your story/characters/setting/style, but we don’t see how we could market this.” (I should perhaps explain, my novels belong to no clear genre, or rather several. Readers don’t seem to have a problem with this, but publishers and retailers do.)
While I waited, I decided to write a really commercial novel, something that would surely secure me a new contract. TWILIGHT frenzy was at its height. All editors seemed to be looking for was paranormal romance, so I decided I’d write one. This was both courageous and stupid. I neither read nor liked paranormal romance. Worse, I’d satirised the genre in an earlier novel, STAR GAZING, which featured a dizzy, middle-aged author of Gothic vampire romances set in Edinburgh.
I confess I felt as if I was selling out, but I badly wanted to get back in the game. I was running out of options and my agent was running out of editors. So I started my new paranormal novel, THE GLASS GUARDIAN as a NaNoWriMo project and quickly produced 25,000 words. Then I hit a wall. Looking at my manuscript, I no longer knew what genre I was writing. I’d created no brave new urban world. My setting was an old Victorian house on the Isle of Skye, with a sad history and beautiful garden. My heroine wasn’t remotely kick-ass. She was a reserved, 42-year old horticulturalist, out of a job and recovering from bereavement. My ghost-hero was guilt-ridden and rather weary of haunting. Most damning of all, I’d failed to write extended passages of Olympian and largely gratuitous sex. (But there was passion.)
Clearly this wasn’t going to be your standard paranormal romance. My sixth novel was turning into the same sort of unmarketable genre-buster that had given my publishers such a headache. Disheartened, I abandoned the book and decided to investigate Kindle as a possible home for one of my unplaced manuscripts.
The idea of creative control certainly appealed. When traditionally published, I’d had a title foisted on me which I hated; I’d been asked to simplify storylines and make characters more likeable; two out of three of my pbs had been sunk by unappealing covers. So when I e-published HOUSE OF SILENCE,
I paid a professional designer to produce a cover to my specifications. No headless women. No supermodel legs. No illegible fonts. Just a cover that made a clear statement about the content of the book: a spooky old country house under a lowering sky that would pull together my genre-busting description of the novel as “A country house mystery… A family drama… A Gothic romantic comedy.”
To my complete astonishment, self-publishing on Kindle was a huge success. Who knows why an ebook succeeds, but my cover, price and synopsis must have played their part. Readers told me the “blurb” ticked a lot of boxes. Some said they bought HOUSE OF SILENCE on the strength of the “COLD COMFORT FARM meets REBECCA” tag line. (So much for “unmarketable”.)
This wasn’t exactly beginner’s luck. I wasn’t a typical indie author. I’d been short-listed for and won awards and I already had a modest but enthusiastic following. My ebook sales were the culmination of six years’ interaction with readers on the internet. I’d always engaged in blog and forum discussions and been conscientious about keeping in touch with readers. I’d used my Facebook author page and website to keep fans informed, then when I went indie, it all paid off. On e-publication day, we had an impromptu launch party for HOUSE OF SILENCE on Facebook. My lovely, loyal readers bought the book, tweeted and blogged, so it was selling in a matter of hours. Within a few months it became a bestseller. (Amazon eventually acknowledged my success at the end of last year when they selected HOUSE OF SILENCE as a Top Ten Editor’s Pick Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category.)
Despite two solid years of rejection, I’d never lost faith in HOUSE OF SILENCE. I knew that book’s odd mix of genres didn’t mean it was uncommercial, simply that it was tricky to market. But with an ebook, the author markets directly to readers who just want a good story at a good price. (Publishers have to market to retailers who have completely different criteria based on unrealistic sales expectations and an often misplaced faith in famous names.) I knew my readers and I knew what they liked. I thought they’d like HOUSE OF SILENCE. I was right. Genre simply wasn’t an issue for them.
In the ebook world story is king. Genre boundaries have become blurred. E-publishing has led to a proliferation of genres, sub-genres and a lot of creative inter-breeding. Whatever you might want to read – cougar rom-coms, gay nautical historical fiction, Roman romance with gladiators, male or female – someone will be writing it and now, thanks to indie ebooks, someone is publishing it. Rumours of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. We’ve actually entered a golden age for readers and writers.
Back in the word factory, I returned to my abandoned paranormal. My commercial novel still didn’t seem very commercial. I could already envisage the rejection emails from editors, pointing out that THE GLASS GUARDIAN would be difficult to market as it didn’t conform to the genre. But I finished the book and sent it to my agent, asking her to try one last time to find me a new publisher.
Meanwhile, HOUSE OF SILENCE continued to sell. Encouraged, I put two out of print backlist novels on Kindle, then a new one, UNTYING THE KNOT. They sold too. But I was still looking for a publisher. (At least, I thought I was.) I was now earning a modest living from my writing, something I never dreamed of doing when traditionally published. Fans were begging me for another new book. I told them a manuscript was currently doing the rounds, but I wasn’t too hopeful.
After a couple of months, my agent had heard nothing, so I made a very big decision. I told her to withdraw the manuscript of my paranormal novel. I couldn’t see the point of collecting rejections for a year or so when I could e-publish in a couple of months and start banking the proceeds. Even though THE GLASS GUARDIAN was a new departure for me, I knew I already had a market for this book and a big band of loyal readers who’d do much of the marketing for me.
Flushed with my Kindle success, drunk perhaps on creative freedom, I realised I wasn’t prepared to re-write to fit some marketing niche. I’d already tried to squeeze my square story into a round hole and I couldn’t do it. But I knew, in the unlikely event of being offered a book contract, that’s probably what I’d be asked to do. But if I published the book myself, I could tell my story the way I wanted to tell it. I could also find out if there was a market for a different sort of paranormal novel – the kind I’d written.
I e-published THE GLASS GUARDIAN on Kindle in June. It already has 22 four- and five-star reviews on Amazon UK. One reader called it “a paranormal romance for grown-ups”. Reviewers described it as a paranormal for people who don’t like paranormals. (Try selling that concept to Tesco.)
For me THE GLASS GUARDIAN is a very special book. It’s the novel that made me decide to go indie for good; the one in which I said what I wanted to say, in the way I wanted to say it. And that’s how it’s going to be with every book now, because I won’t be going back. Well, why would I? Traditional publishing was just getting in the way of my books finding their readers.
A huge thanks to Linda for taking the time and effort to ‘close’ our Writers’ Pieces slot in this years ebook festival – despite being in the middle of a course of chemotherapy. We appreciate your virtual presence Linda!