Last month I had the pleasure of participating in a question and answer session with author Alex Scarrow about his long-running traditionally published series, TimeRiders, and his newer, self-published series featuring a young female protagonist, Ellie Quinn. The newest of this series, Ellie Quin in Wonderland, was released in early February.
In the process of planning the interview we discussed having Alex Scarrow write a guest post on traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, of particular interest because he is currently active in both arenas.
With thanks for taking the time to share his thoughts, I give you Alex Scarrow!
by Alex Scarrow
Truth is, I wanted Ellie Quin to be my follow on series after TimeRiders. That was always the plan – a series aimed at an older teen audience. Something for the TimeRiders fans to move onto after the series was finished. The problem was, when I submitted the series to my publishers, they felt they couldn’t market it. Female protagonist in a space opera setting…aimed at boys 11+? Seriously?!
Well, I countered, it’s not really aimed at boys 11+. It’s aimed at an older market, and aimed as much at girls as boys. I kind of got the same response; Science Fiction aimed at girls?! Seriously?!
And so on.
The problem with Ellie Quin is that it does fall between market places and between genres (it’s as much thriller as it is Scifi), which means it’s hard for marketing types to pitch to retail book buyers in a handily sized speed-dating sentence. So basically, it was a big NO for Ellie and they asked whether I had anything more like TimeRiders to follow TimeRiders.
So, I chose to self-publish this series.
This article isn’t about whether that was a good idea or not. Truth is it was self-publish Ellie Quin or just toss it away. And I wasn’t going to do that. Instead this article is really a brain dump on the positives and negatives I’ve experienced so far in publishing the series.
Well, the big one is this…it’s just me out there trying to get people aware that this series even exists. I have only one shop window…and that is Amazon. You might think being the author of a best selling series like TimeRiders, that I had a huge advantage over all the other authors out there writing in the same area of the market, who don’t have a recognizable name. But actually, in this Kindle eco-system it seems, unless you’re J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer or Suzanne Collins, there’s no real advantage you have over a completely unknown writer. The key tools you have at your disposal to get your book known then are…PRICE…and how good you are at using social media.
The social media side of things? I’ve discovered I’m pretty rubbish at that. I don’t do nearly enough and that’s something I’ve learned that I need to work on.
And as for pricing, THAT is the most important thing. That’s the way you get spotted by those millions of Kindle owners casually browsing for something to download… give it away for free. THIS seems by far to be the most effective marketing tool for ebooks, as most people who own a Kindle tend to limit their trawling to the ‘top 100 free books’.
My plan then was to make the first Ellie Quin book permanently free, then charge a modest sum for the sequels. Unfortunately…Amazon only allows a very limited window of time per book for it to be listed as free. To be precise; a maximum of five ‘free’ days every three months. Which really has killed my plan. All I’ve managed to do is every now and then make book 1 free, and of course, the sales temporarily spike, the book begins to rise in the charts, but, five days is just not long enough a period of time to get it into that golden top 100 hundred. Then, the normal 79p price (UK) returns and poor old Ellie plummets down again into the nether regions of the charts.
So far I’ve found trying to promote Ellie Quinn has been an uphill struggle. I do think…eventually…it will take off, probably when there are enough of them out there for it to look like a meaty series for fans to buy into, and hopefully when there are enough fans out there talking about it. But it’s been bloody hard work, even for an author with – what I’d hoped – was a decent amount of name recognition.
I have total control of the books. Which is a blessed relief. I control the content and I control the release schedule and I control the cover design. I have never felt as much pride and ownership of any creative content I’ve produced thus far as I do about Ellie Quin. Every sale, every review means so much more to me. And what’s more, I sense the small cadre of readers of this series feel the same kind of ownership. That it’s an adventure we’re sharing together without anyone else getting between us. While I’d prefer to sell more copies, there’s definitely something exciting about this series being a largely undiscovered secret. Like being in a cult band playing to a small audience of those in the know.
I was asked by someone the other day, if a big publisher at some point in the future stepped in to publish this series…would I go for that? Honest answer? Maybe. But only if I retained some control. Only if I controlled the publishing process. (ie: final say on content/cover/release schedule etc.) This is my baby…more than that, Ellie’s world is my world. And that is the secret to building a writers’ long term career I think. Being the gatekeeper to a universe that people want to enter. When you sell your rights to a publisher, you go from gatekeeper, to…mere tour guide. At best.
It’s about patience. Playing the long game.
Write books people want to read and eventually those people will find you. If you can build up enough of a community of fans to keep you in the writing business, then seriously, why hand that over to some large corporation? I’ve heard about some pretty horrible things publishers have done to writer’s books. The worst practice of all is the ‘retention of rights’. Basically, when you sign a contract you’re agreeing to allow a publisher to be the exclusive printer/publisher/distributor of your work. There is usually a clause that specifies how long they are allowed to do this. However…the publisher uses very vague terms to cover this which more often than not means, once you let a publisher get his hands on your rights for a supposedly fixed window of time, you are in effect handing over those rights forever. Great if they’re promoting your book and making sure it’s visible in book stores. Not so great if they’re doing nothing with it and copies of it are languishing in some distribution warehouse and collecting dust.
The truth is, the world is changing. If, for example, the subject matter of your book suddenly becomes a hot topic, say, some sensational overnight news story…as a self-publisher, you could re-jacket your book, re-title it, drop the price to nothing and have it right in front of people’s noses within 24 hours. On the other hand, if your book is quietly sitting in some giant publishers’ back list collecting dust, the chances of them bothering to bring it out of retirement and promote it on the back of this breaking news story…are, well, nothing.
In a rapidly changing world, perhaps its far better to be small and agile and able to move quickly. Seriously…right now (to be awfully cynical for a moment) if I had written a novel about a missing Airliner, I’d sure as hell would want it to be in my hands, and not in the hands of a publisher. I could have that book out tomorrow whereas it would take a publisher 6-9 months to get it out!
I suspect, long term, the book industry is heading this way; a marketplace where fiction, genre fiction, and niche fiction is populated by many more self-published authors making a worthwhile living. Of course there’ll be the usual big name superstar authors who’ll continue to make millions of bucks out of selling the same ol’ stuff (and celebs-turned-‘authors’ coining in on their name), but I believe there’ll be room for thousands more good authors, who know their craft, know their small area of the market place and able to make enough of a living to be able to pack in their day jobs.
As for me? My gut instinct tells me to press on with Ellie Quinn. I think, one day, my readers will find her.
I count myself as one of the small cadre of Ellie Quin fans. I feel very passionate about the story thus far and find Ellie to be the kind of delightful character one hopes to journey with when cracking open the cover, physically or digitally, of a book. I hope more of you will take the time to get to know her soon.