Thank you, Amazon, and thank you, Kindle. I'm facing 2012 with more confidence as a writer than I've had for ages - and all because I've released my Swallowcliffe Hall historical trilogy as ebooks. It's been fantastic, a positive experience from the start. Sales might start falling off tomorrow but, right now, it feels like my books have been given a new lease of life.
So here's the story. The series was published in print about 6 years ago. I pitched the books as 'Upstairs, Downstairs' for teens, told from the servants' point-of-view - my first heroine being a 14 year-old housemaid in an English country house in 1890, her daughter a reluctant kitchenmaid in 1914, and her granddaughter staying in the house to convalesce on the eve of the next war in 1939. An editor signed me up on the strength of three synopses and a few chapters, and everyone seemed filled with enthusiasm. I began researching Victorian country houses, found wonderful quotes from contemporary servants' manuals and etiquette guides to open each chapter, and loved writing my first historical fiction.
Unfortunately, my wonderful editor rushed to commission the covers before she went on maternity leave. Many frantic last-minute phone calls later, this is what we ended up with (the phrase, 'weaned on a pickle' springs to mind):
With my editor away, there was no one to champion my series and, by the time I was writing the third book, it was obvious these were not going to be bestsellers. Readers loved the books, but there were hardly any reviews and no foreign rights deals or bookshop promotions. Even my bookmarks had typos. I felt a failure. If people asked me what I did at parties, I muttered something vague about freelance editing.
When 'Downton Abbey' was such a success a few years later, I raised the idea with my publishers of issuing the trilogy as a three-in-one collection with a more enticing cover, to tie in with the second TV series. My editor was initially enthusiastic, having been thinking along the same lines herself, but eventually it was decided that 'children don't watch "Downton Abbey",' and the idea was vetoed.
I knew, though,that I would spontaneously combust if I had to watch another series of Downton without doing something for my poor languishing stories. So my agent got the rights back (because hardly any copies had been sold over the last few royalty periods) and suggested I turn them into ebooks. My first formatting steps were tentative but, encouraged by guidance and enthusiasm from fellow authors (thanks, Katharine, Sue and Anne) and by a stroke of luck in having a talented designer friend (thanks, Amanda Lillywhite, www.crazypanda.com), I persevered. I photographed a lovely old house in Dorset, trawled through family photographs and spent hours picture-researching on the Internet before sending the material to Amanda. And this is what we ended up with:
The young man on the cover of Grace's Story is my great-uncle Norman, who was killed in the Great War in 1916, and the young woman on the front of Isobel's Story is my beautiful mother. Hooray! I love these covers! (They even match!) Impatient to reach an audience made hungry for British nostalgia by 'Downton Abbey', I waited to see what would happen.
People began to buy them. Not in huge quantities at first, and I'm still not going to rival Amanda Hocking, but now I'm selling steadily in America as well as the UK, and to adults as well as teens. Readers are downloading the first story and rushing to buy the second and third. I'm getting reviews - from people I don't even know! One woman said these were the books she'd enjoyed most on her Kindle so far. She gave me five stars! And only one star toWuthering Heights! (OK, that is a bit odd.)
What has helped me, I think, are three factors:
Firstly, I've been able to link my stories to something currently popular
Secondly, I've launched with a ready-made series
Thirdly, the books can be read by adults as well as children.
Epublishing has shown me a way past the gatekeepers (bookshops with limited space, overseas publishers with full lists) to the audience I always knew was out there. Now I don't have to apologize for my writing any more. I feel empowered, liberated, creative. So thank you, Jeff Bezos - and here's to an exciting new e-year for writers and readers everywhere!
Swallowcliffe Hall: A house through history