Jane Davis talks to Kathleen Jones about Trade v Indie Publishing and Creative Writing MA courses
Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula One obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. Her first novel, Half-truths and White Lies, fulfilled every young writer’s dream. It won a major First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ She was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ But then things didn’t quite go according to plan. Last month she published her fifth novel ‘An Unchoreographed Life’ with Amazon – her fourth as a self-published author. I was interested to know how and why she had taken the path from traditional to independent author.
Q. When Half Truths and White Lies won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was endorsed by Joanne Harris, you must have thought your path to the top in traditional publishing was clear - you were a high-profile, award-winning author. What happened to change that?
I don’t think I ever had a high profile, but for a very short while I was told that I was going to be the next big thing. In a year when fiction sales plummeted, Half-truths and White Lies, sold reasonably well (15,000 copies). Then, in 2009, came my reality check. Transworld exercised their right to ‘first refusal’ of my follow-up novel. The reason? It wasn’t ‘women’s fiction’. I hadn’t appreciated (and no one had thought to explain) the implications of being published under their Black Swan imprint. I had been pigeon-holed - and my new work didn’t fit.
My agent and I parted company and I sought new representation. Rejection letters flattered. My writing wasn’t for them but, with my credentials, I would be snapped up. For a while, I believed them.
Over the next four years, I produced two further novels. Had I been under contract, I would have been chasing deadlines. Instead, with the luxury of time, I added layers to plots, depth to characters and a real sense of time and place. As Hugh Howey said at the London Book Fair, authors should enjoy their anonymity.
By 2012, I was touting three novels around the market. Believe me, that is not a position you want to be in. I began to feel like the lady character in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys who attends the same writing conference year after year with a slightly different edit of the same novel. A novel which continues to be rejected, albeit for slightly different reasons.
In November 2012, I decided I owed it to myself to investigate something I had been resisting. I attended the Writers’ & Artists’ Self Publishing in a Digital Age conference. It was a revelation! There, established authors who had been dropped by their publishers were rubbing shoulders with first-time writers who had released their e-book priced at 99p and had sold 100,000 copies within a year. It was a publishing revolution. So was I in or was I out?
Deciding I was in, I released I Stopped Time and These Fragile Things on Christmas Day, using Amazon KDP.
Q. What were your expectations when you published your first book independently? Were they very different to the feelings you had when you launched your first novel?
Absolutely - although I must say that I had no idea what to expect the first time around. I knew full well that I hadn’t earned out my prize money for my publishers. In the meanwhile, I had had a lot of rejection from literary agents and my confidence was at a low. I was fully aware that my novels didn’t fit neatly into a genre, and yet I felt somehow that they deserved to be read. With no marketing budget to speak of, I was starting again from scratch, building from a small readership of family and friends, working on my on-line profile. I planned to start very small-scale with e-books only, and to follow up with a release of paperbacks.
Q. Do you feel that being an Indie author gives you more freedom to write and publish what you want?
I want to develop as a writer, which means that I have no intention of sticking to the safe and the formulaic. These Fragile Things explores the subjects of near-death experience, religious fanaticism, press intrusion and sex addition. Through I Stopped Time was able to explore my love of photography and pay tribute to the extraordinary men and women who lived during the 20th Century. My novel, A Funeral for an Owl is a kind of Kes meets Top Boy. I have realised that one of my themes is missing persons and I have addressed that directly with the story of a teenage girl who slips through the cracks and a man who will do almost anything to stop history from repeating itself. With An Unchoreographed Life, with changes in the laws surrounding prostitution being imminent, my exploration is two-fold: the lengths a mother will go to for her child and what it might be like to be the daughter of a prostitute.
I have had interest from agents since self-publishing, but they want me to change my stories. One agent recently told me that the market currently wants dark family secrets and apparently that is all it wants.
It is quite clear that the indie market is where the innovative writing is. Small publishing houses have enjoyed huge success in recent years in winning awards because they still take risks. It is no co-incidence that when writing competitions are open to self-published novels, they are breaking through.
Q. What is the best thing about being an Indie author?
Q. What is the best thing about being an Indie author?
Complete creative control. I write without worrying about genre or deadlines, luxuries traditionally published authors cannot enjoy. My main aim is that whatever I write should be honest and authentic. I know what I definitely don’t write, but whether my work is commercial, literary, lit-lite or quality womens’ fiction, I am still not sure. I have settled for saying whose work inspires me: Maggie O’Farrell’s warmth for her characters; Martin Davies’s (The Unicorn Road) simple execution of epic subjects; James Robertson’s (The Testament of Gideon Mack) fusion of the everyday and the extraordinary.
This control extends of course to deciding when to publish and how to price your books. The ability to react quickly to market changes is absolutely critical.
Q. What are the essential things you think every author should know about ‘going Indie’ before taking the plunge?
Your social profile should be very advanced before you hit ‘publish.’ You should have garnered interest in your novel, blogging around its subject matter. And you should not have given up your day-job. It will be a long time before you start seeing any profits.
Q. Do you use professional editing and copy-editing services? If so, have you found it difficult to find a good editor to work with?
I always use professional services, yes. For my latest release I experimented by using three copy editors with the intention of blogging about the results. (I have worked with a copy-editor for my last three releases who refuses to take a penny from me. I also had the offer of reciprocal copy-edit from a fellow author and, finally, I paid for an edit using someone who had come highly recommended.) By this point my manuscript had been through twelve beta-readers and several rounds of proof-reads. None suggested many changes but each copy editor picked up on different issues. The only duplication was about hyphenation of words, which can be an issue of consistent ‘house style’ if the dictionary doesn’t provide an answer. This goes to show how subjective editorial advice can be. The most thorough was not the paid-for service. I think that this is because it is really difficult to charge indie authors a rate that represents the time that a good copy edit needs, and paid-for services may be more aware of their time. At the end of the day you have to trust your own instincts.
Q. What marketing services do you think are worth paying for - if any?
I’m afraid paying for marketing isn’t an option for me. My marketing strategy is extending my reach with social media, nurturing my fan-base and getting out there to meet potential readers. My investment is one of time, not of money.
Q. It’s a modern myth that as a traditionally published author your publisher does everything. Unless you’re one of the lucky few publishing a ‘lead title’, a large percentage of your time has to be spent on book promotion as opposed to the creation of new material - you have to spend days travelling to literature festivals, give talks, interviews, prepare promotional material for their publicist, lists of contacts and possible venues for book talks. You can find yourself working on three books at a time - promoting one book, editing another and trying to find time to write the new WIP. As someone who has experience of both traditional and Indie publishing, do you think that there’s a significant increase in the book promotion element for an Indie author? Do you feel there’s an unacceptable ratio between creative time and editorial/publicity time?
I think the idea that a traditional publisher will do your marketing for you is a myth these days. I had only one day of publicity following the release of Half-truths and White Lies. The rest I organised myself. I am currently in contact with a traditionally published author who has received no marketing support for her latest two releases and has had to invest £2000 of her own money. Coupled with the fact that advances are now only a fraction of what they once were, she is seriously considering whether it is time to go indie.
I read an interview with two very successful indie authors yesterday which said that they both aimed for 80% writing time, 20% publicity time. I would say the reverse is true for me. They also both advised that they stick to a schedule of releasing a new book every two - four months! It is quite possible that this is what it takes to make a good living as an indie author, but I think you can only stick to a schedule like that if you are writing a series. It takes me four months to get to know my characters. It might take me two years to settle on the structure for a book.
Q. How did you start to write?
If we are to believe Sir Terry Pratchett, becoming a writer is a process of osmosis. You simply read until you overflow. But it is never quite as simple as that. There were several reasons why I started to write. The first was that, although I had been an artistic child, my work provided no creative outlet. Secondly, it was a question of timing rather than one of time. I spent many years being single with ample time on my hands, but I didn’t start to write until I was in a relationship with someone who gave me confidence. Finally, I needed something to write about. Something happened in my life that I needed to make sense of and I used writing to explore how I felt about it.
Q. Did you do any creative writing courses and if so, did you find them useful? (I’m aware you tried an MA course and would be interested to hear why you didn’t feel it was suitable - I have grave reservations myself ....)
I had never suffered from writers’ block before I started an MA. The truth is that I am not very good at writing to order, just as I am not very good at enjoying myself to order, or sitting exams. My first reservation was about the students I was placed with. I have always thought it was important to be in a classroom situation with a group of peers you respect. Coming to the course as a mature student, I had been working for twenty-five years when I started the course. I also knew something of the publishing industry. The fact was that the students, who had already built up considerable debts (in some cases, more than £50,000), thought that having a creative writing MA was going to make the different between being a published writer or not. They all thought that they were going to be able to make their livings through writing alone. And yet many of them had not embarked on their first novel. (They weren’t aware that only five percent of books sell over 1000 copies and the university had no interest in telling the hard facts because clearly it would have been hard to argue that the further investment of £9000 was justified.) It was as if they were waiting for someone to give them a set of instructions. I also didn’t like the way that they complained when it was explained that points would be deducted for poor grammar and typos. I actually heard the words, ‘That’s not fair.’
My second reservation was that, having accepted our money, the university changed the course modules. Students from the States had signed up to what had been told was a specialised course for children’s fiction only to find that they were placed in a mixed group of poets and writers of all genres of adult fiction. These people had given up jobs, left their families and friends behind and moved countries!
Then there was the first critique session. Our tutor actually began by telling us he had no intention of following the course at all! One guinea-pig was asked to read her work out loud, then each of us had thirty seconds to critique. No discussion, just one comment, with the course tutor’s turn would come last. It was a very beautiful piece, an account of visiting her friend’s mother as she was dying of cancer. Everything in the room was described, apart from the friend’s mother. I thought it showed considerable skill. The tutor ripped it apart. He used phrases like, ‘Let’s get rid of this crappy sentence,’ ‘Let’s get rid of this shitty description.’ And he wanted to see the mother. The only thing we needed to see was the mother!
I went to see the course director immediately to complain and to say that I would not be continuing with the course. I was persuaded to stick with it for a month and was told that all of my fees would be refunded if I still decided to drop out. A couple of days later, all of the students received a whiny little email from the tutor saying that he was aware that several people had complained about him and asking why we hadn’t had the guts to do it to his face. There was fault with the university - just as there is a fault with the whole industry which makes money from would-be authors. But there is also the very real difficulty that authors cannot make their livings from writing alone, and so writers teach, even if they don’t believe in it, even if they don’t make a good job of it. At least when John Irving says that you can’t teach creative writing, he does so with an awe for the process.
Q. I notice that UCLAN (the University of Central Lancashire) has just started a course in E-publishing for students - do you think this is a good idea? My worries are that it encourages young and quite immature writers to have unrealistic expectations of the e-publishing market and jump in before they’re ready. Are there any comments you’d like to make for anyone thinking of taking the course?
Again, my concern would be that a university is charging course fees of a level that the average student will never make back in terms of book sales. Spend your money on outsourcing. Pay for a structural edit, find a copy editor, a cover designer. Go to one of the Writers’ and Artists’ Self-Publishing in a Digital Age conferences. A day pass for the London Book Fair only costs £30. Go and talk to the service providers. Explore their websites. I.T. really isn’t my strong point, but even I have been able to navigate the various e-book publishing platforms without too much difficulty, and the fact is that they are improving all of the time, as are the requirements for e-book formatting. What was true last year is not true this year. Is the university is constantly updating its material?
Publishing too soon is a cardinal sin. There should be a big red ‘publish’ button with dramatic sound effects, or a check list asking if you have had a structural edit, polished your material until you can’t stand the sight of it, if you have tested it on the public, if you have used proof-readers and copy-editors, if you are completely happy with your final proof. And then, ARE YOU SURE?
The best advice I heard was not to publish any material until you have three books polished and ready to go. The rationale behind this is that, if you don’t have that second book to sell and that third, your sales will lose momentum and your audience will move elsewhere. There were four years between my first and my second and third releases. My first book sold 15,000 copies. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if I could have capitalised on those 15,000 readers?
Q. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given/read?
Apart from the above? Although it doesn’t relate to the writing itself, to develop the hind of a rhino. That came from Debi Alper, and at no time is it required more than during the submissions process. But, frankly, if you’re put off by criticism, this is the wrong business to be in. I think that the next most useful advice is, ‘Your book is not for everybody,’ which came from Joanna Penn. Of course, this relates more to marketing than writing, but I think it can also help enormously with the process. To discover your niche is part of discovering your voice.
Q. Do you think that the traditional genre classifications are too rigid and stifle creativity?
Joanne Harris says that she won’t insult her readers by assuming they only like to read one genre of fiction. We can’t all be Joanne Harris but, increasingly, authors are starting to sell themselves as the brand. It is easy to say what chick-lit, sci-fi, fantasy and erotica are. The difficulty is when you run out of categories and still haven’t found one that suits. I had the option of marketing myself as literary of quality women’s fiction. I heard Adele Parks speak recently, and she said that she was given the choice of marketing herself as literary fiction or commercial fiction. When she asked what the difference was, she was told that literary fiction sells an average of 7,000 copies, while commercial fiction sells an average of 70,000 copies. You can guess what her answer was. Genres are marketing labels, no more. And, of course, we now have some ridiculous sub-categories starting to emerge.
Q. What do you like best about the Indie scene? I know you went to the London Book Fair – did you have a good experience?
I attended the London Author Fair and London Book Fair in close succession and had a wonderful experience at both. When I was traditionally published, I didn’t know any other authors. I have since reached out to authors on-line, and it was wonderful just how many faces I knew. And the fact that I was recognised was quite overwhelming.
Q. If someone gave you a £10,000 travel bursary to go off and write a novel somewhere - where would you go?
What a wonderful question and I’m afraid I shall squander it. I have travelled extensively in the past, but I haven’t been abroad for ten years now (mainly due to the lack of a £10,000 bursary, but also because I feel a responsibility to reduce my carbon footprint). It’s true to say that you can find as many interesting things within a fifteen-mile radius of your own home as you can on the other side of the world. I find it helpful to walk in the shoes of my characters, not just once, but continually, throughout the writing of a novel. I think my novels have a very British feel, and I don’t know how I’d feel about setting a novel in a different country. John Irving, whose writing is so associated with New England, tried it with Son of the Circus and I’m afraid it didn’t work for me.
Overlaying your own life with those of your characters tends to have a very strange impact on the way that you view your surroundings. In my first (unpublished) novel, which was four years in the writing, I used a railway footbridge as the scene of a murder. The footbridge was at the end of long, unlit alleyway, then there was one light at one side of the bridge, and you crossed the bridge in complete darkness until you reached the shadows cast by the lamp at the other side. The bridge was on my walk to and from high school, the walk to and from my first job and my walk to and from the pubs of Wimbledon. As a young adult, I used it at least four times a day and two of those would have been after dark. Now I pass it less frequently, usually going under it while on a train, and it gives me shivers in a way that it never used to. Now it is Hilary’s bridge and not mine.
Q. Many thanks for taking the time to talk Jane, and good luck with An Unchoreographed Life!
You can find out more about Jane on her website - www.jane-davis.co.uk
You can find out more about Jane on her website - www.jane-davis.co.uk
or check her out on Facebook.
Jane’s books are available on Kindle and in paperback
Kathleen Jones is a novelist, biographer and poet, both trade and independently published and she blogs at 'A Writer's Life'
You can find her website at www.kathleenjones.co.uk