Monday, 2 January 2012

Surfing the ebook wave, by Jennie Walters

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!

Jennie Walters
www.jenniewalters.com
Swallowcliffe Hall: A house through history

14 comments:

jenalexanderbooks said...

Jennie, this is inspiring! I've twice had series orphaned by their commissioning champion jumping ship, and it's soul-destroying.Kindling is now on my list of 2012 challenges. Thank-you.

Linda Newbery said...

Gorgeous covers, Jennie! They look better than Downton Abbey ...

Diana Kimpton said...

I've found this article really encouraging. Ebooks make me feel empowered too. The world of publishing is changing dramatically.

Jennie Walters said...

Thanks so much, Jen, Linda and Diana! Perhaps I'm tempting fate by writing such an enthusiastic article, but this is honestly how I feel right now. You're right, Diana - the publishing world is changing so fast. I wonder how things will look in another year's time? Glad you like the covers, Linda - I highly recommend Amanda Lillywhite for any epublishing ventures!

Herts Hogline said...

An inspiring blog and I just love the front covers - will add to books I MUST dowload

Katherine Roberts said...

I think one of the great things about publishing ebooks is that you can bring them to readers quickly enough to connect with things like Downton Abbey - sometimes it's all in the timing, and publishing the traditional way is just too slow to catch waves, though sometimes it can start them...

Candy Gourlay said...

Fantastic! Congratulations, Jennie!

Paeony Lewis said...

Hey, you're not tempting fate (as you commented earlier) because success is deserved. I still have the original books and enjoyed them without a kindle, but it's brilliant you've made a success of rebranding them as ebooks. It must be such a relief to have some control. Good luck!

Jennie Walters said...

Thanks, all! Quite agree with Katherine's comments about the speed of epublishing. I think in this case it definitely helped that I had the books all ready-made, so to speak, so I could just offer them up. But it also gave me the flexibility to edit my books, too - the beginning of 'Polly's Story' seemed a bit long-winded, so I took out a chunk and then it read much better!

Linda Gillard said...

An inspiring story. Congratulations! How can people talk about "the death of the book" when series like these (for which there's clearly a market) can be rescued by e-publishing?

I too love those covers.

Enid Richemont said...

Such an encouraging story, and I love those covers! Have made a note of your designer friend - may need her.

Jennie Walters said...

Thaks, Linda and Enid. Yes, Amanda Lillywhite is great - very reasonable and so easy to work with. In fact, she's just posted an account of designing these covers on her own blog -
http://www.crazypanda.com/amandalillywhite.html

Interesting to see the designer's point of view!

Lynne Benton said...

Delighted to hear that your Swallowcliffe Hall series is working so brilliantly in ebook form! I loved the originals and couldn't understand why they didn't take off as they should have done - so well done you for taking this initiative and making it work for you. And I found your enthusiastic post really inspiring. Many thanks!

Sue Purkiss said...

This is really cheering. Making an e-book out of The Willow Man is on my list of challenges for 2012 (sadly, just behind doing my tax return...) but I'm quite nervous about it, not being all that technologically ept. And I'm so glad your books are having a second life - I really loved them, as you know.