Why I still want to be a paperback writer... Katherine Roberts

In 1966, the Beatles famously sang about wanting to be a paperback writer. I was only four at the time so just starting to read and write, but I must have thought it sounded like a good idea because a few years later I started typing out my first science fiction 'novel' on blue and yellow paper. It was just about long enough to count as a novella, but I never sent it anywhere because the year I finished it I got a place at university to study mathematics. Probably just as well.

By 1987, I was programming computers (think huge mainframes filling whole rooms with massive tape reels you had to change halfway through running a program) and writing fiction secretly in my spare time. I completed another novel - a much longer one that became a fantasy trilogy. I sent it off to a publisher, and the now legendary editor John Jarrold wrote back with a personal note explaining why it was not quite right for them. I forgot about writing for a while, escaped computers at the end of the 80s (when half the department was made redundant), got married and ended up working with racehorses.

Song Quest
(Element Books)
Around 1992, I fell off a young horse into a hedge, had two weeks off work with an injury to my back, and decided I couldn't work with racehorses forever. I started writing again in my spare time, only this time not so secretly. I joined a local writers' group, and with their encouragement published several short stories in magazines. In 1999, after seven years of submitting manuscripts to publishers, I finally became a paperback writer with my debut novel Song Quest, which was released in paperback in 2000, when it won the inaugural Branford Boase Award for an outstanding debut book for young readers.

(Chicken House 2000)
More paperbacks followed, but eventually sales fell off as publishers started letting them go out of print. In 2010, amazon opened their KDP (then called the 'Digital Text Platform') to UK authors, and in 2011 I became an ebook writer with my second novel Spellfall, which had been my bestseller in paperback. More out-of-print books followed, until I had my whole backlist available in ebook format.

For a couple of years, ebooks were hot - or cool, depending on your point of view. People read Kindles instead of paperbacks on the train but the mainstream publishers were over-pricing their digital editions (apparently afraid of losing paperback sales), and as a result reasonably-priced indie ebooks pretty much sold themselves. I'm not a big name by any means, but in 2014 my earnings were almost $1,000 from US ebook sales alone, and the UK and European digital markets were catching up fast.

It couldn't last. My share of the ebook market shrank over the years to around half of this, despite working on better covers and pushing the books out more widely across the other digital platforms... it seems people still want to be paperback readers! Finally, in 2016, I got around to tackling print-on-demand editions for my backlist titles, which I uploaded at Createspace (now part of amazon) and put into extended distribution. This means you should be able to order a copy from wherever you want, just like any other paperback that isn't on the shelf of your local bookstore, and the book will be printed and posted to you, literally hot off the press. Although my ebook sales have dropped off, paperbacks happily seem to have picked up the slack. In 2018, for the first time, my indie paperback income in the US exceeded my ebook income by a fair margin, and the total comes to more than the original $1,000 I earned from my indie ebooks in the early days.

Which brings us full circle. It's now 2019, and I'm a paperback writer again! Here is the current (print on demand) edition of my debut novel Song Quest.

SONG QUEST (paperback)

So if, like me, you write for younger readers and some of your books have gone out of print at their publishers, then I hope this will encourage you to get them back out there as print on demand. Paperbacks are easier than before via amazon's KDP, and one day you might just find they start selling themselves... and then you'll be a proper Beatles-style paperback writer!


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers. Find out more at her website www.katherineroberts.co.uk


Sandra Horn said…
Hooray! Go, Katherine! More power to your writing arm!
Umberto Tosi said…
Love this. Me too. I still wanna be a paperback writer and make a million overnight. (Well, I got the first part of that ... !) You are a woman of many talents and inspiring determination, a paperback rider at one time as well, apparently.

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