GUEST POST: Polly Courtney on getting published - and walking away...
This week we're joined by Polly Courtney, author of Poles Apart and It's a Man's World. Polly is a traditionally published author who's now decided to go it alone. Here, she lets us in on her journey...
Back in 2008, I was contemplating the theme of my third novel when my literary agent called. 'Good news,' she said. 'HarperCollins are interested.'
I couldn't believe it. This was the best news I'd heard since I first started typing up the scribbled anecdotes from my days in the City - anecdotes that went on to form the basis of my self-published first novel, Golden Handcuffs. Every author dreams of being represented by a mainstream publishing house and I was no different. To have an army of sales people selling my titles into bookstores up and down the country, to benefit from the promotional firepower of an international publishing machine, to have marketing budgets - yes, actual marketing budgets! - and a real PR person representing me to the press... this was what I'd been waiting for.
I would have been the last person to predict that three years later, I would be slamming the door on HarperCollins and heading back down the self-publishing route to do it myself - and to do it better.
I know that sounds arrogant. I appreciate that many unpublished authors who learned of my actions felt riled that I was throwing away an opportunity that millions of writers would chew their own arms off for. But this was no impulsive hissy fit. This was a calculated decision, based on a careful comparison of what I had experienced in the traditional publishing world and what I had done on my own. I had weighed up the pros and cons and concluded that I was better off going it alone.
In self-published my first novel, Golden Handcuffs, I muddled through, making it up as I went along. For editorial input, I got friends and strangers to rip it apart and the most anally retentive people I could find to look for typos. For promotion, I started out by emailing everybody I knew, asking for introductions to journalist types. I followed up every lead, even those that seemed futile like the girl who once worked for a hairdressing magazine, and eventually started to achieve mainstream coverage, using my back story as the hook ('woman quits the City and writes a book about what it's really like').
Before long, I was appearing on TV and radio, writing City-based features in national newspapers and magazines and attracting attention from abroad. I am not a well-connected person, but I used what I had - my story and the goodwill of my friends - to spread the word. On launch day, I drove around the Square Mile in the guise of a promo girl, handing out flyers, and then in the evening I held a big party to say thank you to all my friends. ITV covered the event, which meant that the caterers supplied for free and I put together goody bags to make sure everyone went away happy.
When it came to getting the book into stores, I wrote to the Head of Buying for each of the main national bookstores, enclosing copies of the coverage achieved to date and asking to be featured in the monthly recommendation that went out to stores. I set up a Facebook page and built my own website. I invented a PR entity to represent me when approaching national and foreign press. Within three months, it was time to do another print-run.
Looking back, I realise that what I was doing was something known as 'PR'. At the time I was just doing whatever seemed to make sense in order to sell copies.
Golden Handcuffs continued to sell well and I continued to push it, funding the second print-run with the proceeds of the first (which, I now know, were considerably more than I would have made with a traditional publisher - typically £2 per book as opposed to the 30p royalties). Meanwhile, I started to write my next novel. Poles Apart came out eighteen months later, also self-published and also promoted using DIY techniques. This one was based on the story of a friend, a Polish migrant living in London, so I involved the Polish immigrant community in both my research and where possible, my promotion. I took Polish lessons and went to Krakow. I invited the Polish media to the launch do and gave my acknowledgements speech in both English and Polish. My literary agent, who had taken me on during the launch of my previous novel, sold the Polish rights and now the title sells well in both languages.
I didn't know any other authors, so I had nothing to compare my experiences to. I could only imagine that moving from the DIY experience to that of a 'proper' publishing house would be like stepping out of a Ford Fiesta and getting into an X5. Everything would be bigger, better, faster and more efficient. The PR would be more effective, the distribution more widespread. There would be an actual budget for marketing - you know, like the posters you see on bus stops and paid-for space in magazines? - and the production, including the jacket design, would be slick yet rigorous, backed up by furious market research to ensure we hit the right audience.
To begin with, I was living the dream. I met up with the editorial team and despite the initial gaping rift between our ideas (I write gritty, contemporary, issues-based novels and they were suggesting 'something a little bit mystical'), we found common ground and I started to write. They assured me that the designers were already at work on the jacket design and that a 'compelling' title was being developed as we spoke. I believed them.
Weeks later, the proposed package was revealed. My next book would be called The Day I Died and would feature a faceless girl in a long, flowing nightie in what looked like a Victorian house amid swirls of grey and green - right on trend, but seemingly inappropriate for the content of the book and the target reader. I wanted to believe that my gut instinct was wrong, that the experts knew best, so I conducted some market research, polling avid fans on whether they would pick up the book in this form and what they thought it might be about. The results were disastrous: thirty negative responses from target readers. I fed this back to my publishers, who replied:
'Thank you for your careful and considered thoughts on the jacket look. Your input is much appreciated. I'm sorry that we couldn't arrive at an image that everyone was 100% supportive of, but we have got to start proofing this jacket as timelines are incredibly tight.'
I was beginning to understand their game plan: wrap the book in a generic cover based on whatever is trending at the time, give it a cliché title and hope that the airport branches of WHSmith take it on in to tempt women on their way to the beach. Gone were the days of thinking about the target market, designing something around them and undertaking targeted promotion. In fact, gone were the days of promotion. My PR representative talked at length about double-page spreads and radio campaigns and went on to achieve a single feature on how I broke my leg when I was eighteen. The marketing budget didn't stretch to a launch do, so I hosted one myself. The pattern repeated itself for my next book - entitled The Fame Factor and dressed up in gold stars and blue swirls - and the one after that - It's a Man's World, whose cover was a dubious replica of the movie poster for Morning Glory.
It was frustrating. I had worked hard with my first two books to build up a brand and a loyal following. I had achieved credibility in the national press for tackling serious issues in a light-hearted way and yet I was embarrassed to stand up and promote my latest works - and nobody else was doing it either.
I realise that not all traditional publishers are alike. I understand that some authors have a very positive and collaborative relationship with their editorial team. There is still a place for the mainstream publisher - not least to serve as a filter on the swathes of literary content out there - and I don't want to sound ungrateful. But my fingers are burnt. I've learned a lot in the last few years, but the biggest learning of all is that my 'muddling through' technique wasn't so bad after all. It was just as effective, if not more effective, than the traditional method of selling books - and selling books to the people who want to read what's inside.
For me, that's what matters. I just want my readers to enjoy my books for what they are - not what they're dressed up to be.
Polly Courtney is author of six published novels including Golden Handcuffs and It's a Man's World. For more information, go to www.pollycourtney.com.