Award-winning Author Felicity Pulman has written books about crime, fantasy and history. With a number of her works on the NSW Premier’s Reading List, 2010 and Victorian Premier’s Reading Challenge list she has been published by Random House Australia, Pan Macmillan, Scholastic, Blake Education, Wendy Pye NZ, National Library of Australia, Pan Macmillan (UK) and Sauerlander (Germany.) I met Felicity at the recent NSW Writers’ Centre weekend workshop Everything About Publishing. While I was there to spend a few hours educating attendees about Digital Publishing and the opportunities available to them, Felicity was one of a panel of writers telling others about their experiences of Self-Publishing. When I headed up the Production Department at Random House Australia many books crossed my desk at various stages of the editorial and production process. I found myself at times getting drawn into a story and always made a note to read it later. I have always read across a number of genres, even those books classified as being targeted at ‘young adults’. As someone who is adult, and not at all young anymore I have still found some titles and series written for this genre very enjoyable. Felicity’s The Janna Mysteries series was one of them and The Rangers Apprentice Series by John Flanagan will always remain another firm favourite. It was a delight to meet Felicity and hear that in order to finish the Janna Mysteries series she decided to self publish. While many authors may choose to do this as a first step into publishing, it is very interesting to hear of a successful author who has worked with a major publishing house to then experiment in this field. I wanted to share her experience with readers of this blog and Felicity has been kind enough to answer some questions.
Digireado: Hi Felicity, thanks for agreeing to share with us your experiences of working with a major publisher and then self publishing. Firstly, can you tell us how you were published by Random House Australia?
Felicity Pulman: My manuscript was chosen from the slush pile by the wonderful Linsay Knight, then Head of Children’s Books at Random House Australia, who so loved the idea of five teenagers travelling through time to the court of King Arthur she asked me to write another book in what eventually became the Shalott trilogy. I’d already had four novels published by then (Ghost Boy, Surfing the Future, Wally the Water Dragon and Three’s a Crowd) and I went on to write the first four Janna Mysteries with Random House Australia.
Digireado: Have you always had a burning desire to be an author?
FP: I’ve always enjoyed stories and, being a voracious reader growing up in a small bush town in Zimbabwe, I used to write my own stories when I ran out of books to read. Writing stories was just something I did. I didn’t think of it as a serious career path until, aged 40, I sat the HSC and went on to do a degree in Communications followed by an MA in Children’s Literature. (An indication that ‘life begins at 40’ – or else I’m just a very slow learner!) Having woken up to the fact that I should start taking my writing seriously, and being a great lover of crime fiction, I wrote a few crime novels for adults, without success. (The manuscripts are still sitting in my bottom drawer!) My daughter, then a teenager, was reading several Dolly fiction novels a month so I decided to give that a go, with some success. And I realised I enjoyed writing for children and teenagers and have been doing it ever since, although I’ve also had success with my short stories for adults.
Digireado: You’ve worked with a number of publishers so can you explain why you recently self-published the last two books in The Janna Mysteries?
FP: When I embarked on writing The Janna Mysteries, I felt I’d made a pact with readers to finish the series. Because of disappointing sales (for various reasons) Random House Australia decided not to publish the last two novels – but I still needed to find out how Janna’s quest ended. Did Janna find her father? Did she avenge her mother’s death and bring a murderer to justice? And, when it came to choosing between Godric and Hugh, did she make the right choice? I thought I knew but, as in most of the books I write, my ideas can change and so can outcomes. After living with Janna for so many years while writing her story, I needed to know if she was going to be all right. While I was writing the last two books I was also being bombarded by readers desperate to find out when the next book was coming out. For all our sakes, I knew I had to finish the series and, somehow, get those books out to readers.
I believe it’s absolutely vital to have your work professionally edited before publication if you’re going it alone. Felicity Pulman
Digireado: Once you’d decided to self-publish how did you choose the path you’ve taken?
FP: I spoke to various writing friends who had self-published and soon came to realise that distribution and getting the word ‘out there’ were the main problems. Then I met Tim who is IT savvy, who had done the research and had opted to publish his (illustrated) children’s books with CreateSpace. He showed them to me and I was impressed by their quality. Although a complete Luddite I decided to go that route for several reasons: Tim spoke highly of the company; they offer a full range of services; the books are sold worldwide through Amazon (so I knew I wouldn’t wind up with a garage full of books) and they’re published both as paperbacks and e-books. The clincher was when Random House Australia decided to sell all my other books through Amazon in 2011, meaning that the full series would become available online.
Digireado: Working with a publisher you have the full suite of services included; editing, design, production, marketing, sales and distribution. Was it difficult and time-consuming to make all the decisions yourself?
FP: Yes, it was difficult, especially for me as a Luddite having to come to grips with technology and doing everything on line. And yes it was all very time-consuming, keeping me in ‘left-brain mode’ while taking me away from valuable writing time. I had both manuscripts professionally edited but I still read and re-read them endlessly, trying to ensure they made sense and that there were no typos, no stupid mistakes etc. Having to make all those decisions was really nerve-wracking, as was letting go at the end when it came time to print. Making the book trailer was the final challenge, but that was fun. (And the first reader of this blog to spot the anachronism wins a book!)
Digireado: Why did you choose the package that you went with?
FP: As a technophobe, I knew I’d need a lot of help publishing on line, and CreateSpace offered that support – for a fee, of course. If you’re IT savvy you can publish your books for far less than I paid but, for me, it was more important to get it right and to match the high standard of the first four books. For this reason I paid to have the books edited. I asked CreateSpace to copy the interior design of the first four books (one less decision I didn’t have to make!) and, although the company offers cover design as part of the package (for a moderate fee), I commissioned the designer of the first four Janna covers to create the covers for the last two books. The most valuable service from CreateSpace (in my opinion) was the fact that they always answered my emailed questions promptly and carefully, and they also phoned me if I was having a meltdown, so that I could talk through my issues.
Digireado: At the NSW Writers Centre Seminar you mentioned that you may choose a different editing option next time; can you explain why you would do this?
FP: I believe it’s absolutely vital to have your work professionally edited before publication if you’re going it alone. The danger, when self-publishing, is that you’re so familiar with the text that you miss typos and repetition, and you don’t pick up mistakes that might be obvious to an outsider. CreateSpace offer a (quite expensive) copy editing service which was good so far as it went (I specified that I wanted to keep ‘English’ spelling, for example) but I did pick up several factual errors later on. I guess I was expecting more feedback on structure and content, so I’m still not sure just how well I’ve told Janna’s story in the last two books – although fortunately there are now several excellent reviews which have allayed my fears somewhat! With hindsight, if I was going this route again, I would ask an Australian editor to look at how the story is told, the structure and content – the sense of the book – before thinking about grammar and typos. (I have worked as an editor in the past, so copy-editing is less of an issue for me.)
Digireado: From the time of starting the process how long does it take to have your title on sale?
FP: Because I dragged the chain over making decisions; because I made so many mistakes (and changes) along the way and because I agonised over each step of the process, publication from go to sale point took about 10 months. If you know what you’re doing, if you can send in print-ready copy, for example, the process probably takes a matter of weeks rather than months. According to Steven Lewis who formats his own books and publishes direct through Amazon, the books can be up and running within 24 hours. Publication through a traditional publisher is very different. With my latest book, for example, the manuscript was submitted to Harper Collins Australia in March 2011 but A Ring Through Time won’t be published until November this year.
Digireado: In the seminar you mentioned the difficulties of obtaining a US Tax File Numbermeaning 30% of your Amazon sales income has been withheld. I don’t hear this mentioned a lot from Australian authors, can you explain what this is and how you have overcome the problem?
FP: I’ve tried for over a year to organise a tax file number and have more or less given up. Having spent time and $$ on sending the requisite forms + certified copies of my passport (twice) + organising apostilles + numerous phone calls, I’m still getting knocked back because they say they ‘need a copy of my passport’. Perhaps I should approach the American embassy for help! I’m hoping that I may be able to offset here the tax I’ve paid in the States but I still have to find out if this is possible. I do know that I’m not the only one having difficulties with this, and I don’t know what the answer is.
Note from Digireado: It was because of this conversation with Felicity that I spoke to Australian author Brian Lawrenson to find out how he had overcome this problem. A link to the blog post of his guide to US Withholding Tax can be found here.
Digireado: After the weekend seminar Everything You Know About Publishing have you thought about anything you may choose to do differently next time?
FP: That was a fantastic seminar; I learned so much about publishing in general, but also about new technology and publishing options available. I’d certainly urge anyone contemplating self-publishing to attend something similar, if they can. One thing I’d do differently, after listening to your presentation, is I’d arrange my own ISBNs. CreateSpace offers that service (free), and so I took it. This means that the company is now the publisher of the two Janna Mysteries and the books are on their imprint. As I understand it, even though I own copyright, should I choose to publish those books elsewhere I’ll need a new ISBN and will have to go through the process all over again. The very successful self-published author, Brian Lawrenson, talked about paying for a number of ISBNs up front (through Thorpe Bowker), which he now uses for each book as it’s published.
Digireado: Would I be correct in saying to some extent you have the benefit of your publisher Random House Australia’s marketing efforts to help with the flow-on effects of sales of ‘Sage for Sanctuary’ and ‘Thyme for Trust’ – Books 5 and 6 in The Janna Mysteries?
FP: Yes, I’m sure this is so. However, the truth of publishing these days is that authors are expected to get out and promote their own books even when they’re with a major publisher. Depending on the budget available, publishers might provide posters and bookmarks to hand out, and organise author tours or appearances at writers’ festivals, for example, all of which help to launch a book. But after that you’re on your own and it’s up to you to generate book sales in any way you can.
Digireado: There are an awful lot of books on Amazon – how do you help people find your titles?
FP: Good question! Finding a hook for your book is a good start: eg ‘CSI in medieval time’ or ‘the new Ellis Peters / Brother Cadfael’ for the Janna Mysteries. I have a website with lots of information about my books and about the writing process. I also have a blog, plus I guest blog whenever I’m asked. I belong to several online organisations (eg Buzz Words, Pass It On) and also associations like the NSW Writers Centre, Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators, Children’s Book Council of Australia, Australian Society of Authors, Society of Women Writers and others, all of which have websites and/or newsletters in which I’m able to promote my books. I’m on Facebook and Twitter and, thanks to my very good webmaster at Cube Web Solutions, they’re all interlinked now. I have a video book link on YouTube at www.youtube.com/felicitypulman. I accept any invitations to run workshops or to speak about researching and writing my novels, whether it’s to students at schools or to adult organisations, and I’ve organised my own promotional bookmarks and cards to hand around wherever I go. Of course, I also hope readers will spread the word!
Digireado: Selling on Amazon means you’re not gaining the benefit of hand-selling by a local bookseller who knows your books. Are you keen to pursue options as they open up for local booksellers to sell your self-published books and ebooks?
FP: The whole publishing industry is changing so rapidly, it’s really difficult to keep up with both the technology and also the potential for sales outlets. Speaking as an author, and knowing how short the shelf life is of a ‘real’ book, I think it is wonderful for local booksellers to also sell ebooks. This does seem to be the way of the future, and I’m sure being able to sell ebooks will help traditional bookshops remain viable. Being able to sell locally would surely be a huge benefit for self-published authors.
Note from Digireado: Readers of this blog will know that I’m all for supporting the local publishing and bookselling industry. There has been a lot of activity with local booksellers and their inroads into ebook retailing although in these early days most are still aimed at dealing with Australian Publishers. Perhaps over time this may change but currently one way for Australian authors to have their ebooks available locally (and internationally) is through the Google Ebookstore. Digital printing is available from a number of suppliers and there are also a number of book distributors who will consider distribution of self-published books to bookshops.
Digireado: For your next book would you prefer to place it with a publisher or self-publish again?
FP: Harper Collins Australia is publishing my next book – more historical fiction, but this time it’s Australian history. It’s called A Ring Through Time, and it’s a love story, but it’s set partly during the brutal days of the 2nd penal settlement on the very beautiful Norfolk Island. I’m glad they’ll have the responsibility of publishing the book, and I know they’ll do a fabulous job. But I’m not closing the door on self-publishing either. I have at least two novels that I haven’t been able to sell in Australia but that I think readers would enjoy.
Digireado: What advice would you give to a writer who was thinking of self-publishing?
FP: There are pluses and minuses with both forms of publishing. Attending seminars on this topic can be really helpful. (NB: The ASA is hosting several publishing seminars this year, including The E-Exchange in Sydney on 18 February 2012.) If you’re happy to take control of the process and believe your manuscript is as good as it can be, then self-publishing is probably the way to go. The rate of return is much higher than with a regular publisher, particularly if you’re successful both at keeping costs down and promoting book sales. Plus you have the satisfaction of holding your book in your hand and knowing that everything about it is all your own work. BUT – publishing with a regular publisher also comes with huge benefits. They take care of the production process, leaving you free to focus on your writing. They will promote your book through their catalogues and in other ways I’ve already mentioned. They will also try to sell it overseas. Plus their reputation gives your work extra credibility. You need to weigh up the pros and cons for yourself before making the decision to self-publish. In particular, look at the services the company is offering. Are they cost effective? Do you need all those services, or do they give you a choice? How much of the work can you do yourself? Do they produce paperbacks as well as ebooks? Will they help with promotion? (For example, CreateSpace offers a marketing package – which I didn’t take up – and making a video book trailer – which I did. But it was expensive.) Will they help with distribution? Some advantages of working with a digital strategy expert like Digireado is having someone to talk you through the process and give technical advice on format, digital printing and layout, apps and so forth. Publishing locally would mean transactions would be in Australian dollars (so you wouldn’t have to cope with the US Tax Department!) and help would be at hand without the time delay (19 hours) that there is when dealing with the USA. Also, if the books are published here you can register them for CAL and also for Educational Lending Rights/Public Lending Rights payments (provided you can get them into school and/or public libraries.) You can also submit them for various book awards – great promotion if they win! Finally, it’s much easier to organise promotion through radio, TV or print media if you can send them a copy of your book to look at. It’s also far easier to sell your own books if they are readily available and accessible here. I have a problem with all of this as the cost of posting my novels from the USA has proved to be absolutely prohibitive.
Note from Digireado: Charlotte Harper from Ebookish has posted a great list of Digital Diary Dates over on the Booku Blog. Although some of these are aimed at the Publishing Industry, there are also a number of events aimed at writers interested in self-publishing in the digital realm.
Digireado: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us Felicity. It’s really valuable for authors to hear first-hand from someone who has ventured down the self-publishing path to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities.
Felicity Pulman on The Janna Mysteries: It’s a six-book series about a young woman whose mother dies in mysterious circumstances. Forced to flee after her home is burned down, she goes in search of her unknown father, hoping that with his help she can avenge the death of her mother. Her search takes her from forest to farm, abbey and finally to the heart of royal Winchester, and she solves many crimes and mysteries along the way including the mystery of her own birth and the secrets of her heart. This was a HUGE learning curve involving enormous amounts of research into the real history and society of medieval time as the books are set in the 1140s during the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. I also needed to know about herbs and healing (because Janna’s mother is a wortwyf, a herb wife, and has taught her healing skills to Janna.) I visited the UK several times to walk in Janna’s footsteps and research historical documents, buildings, landscapes, etc – and I loved every moment of it!
There’s more information about all Felicity’s books, including the Shalott trilogy and The Janna Mysteries on her website: www.felicitypulman.com.au. There’s also a video clip on YouTube at www.youtube.com/felicitypulman . These books are all available through Amazon.com either as paperbacks or as ebooks.