Why A Writer With An Agent Decided To Self-Publish


A writer with an agent decides to self-publish? Really? Are they mad? Well, that’s what Alexander McNabb decided was the best option for this writing career. Below is a guest post where he explains why he decided to self-publish and outlines what he learnt in the process. Keep your eyes out for the death threat!

I decided to self-publish Olives – A Violent Romance back in late 2011 after my agent had enjoyed it, but decided it wasn’t a commercial gig for him in the UK market.He’d recently failed to find a publishers for Beirut – a more commercial international spy thriller than the more ‘low key’ but realistic conundrums of Olives.

I realised at that point I already had the things that conventional publishing offered me – basically validation and reach. Validation came through an agent signing me and reach was just something I’d have to provide for myself – but I actually HAD reach. My day job as a communications consultant convinced me I had at least some of the tools I’d need, what the hell?

I decided to go it alone and self-publish.

A unique quirk to my story is that I’m based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates – so that both limited my reach into the UK (my original target market for the book) and meant that my home market was retarded in its adoption of e-books – Amazon, Kobo et al don’t serve the Middle East.

The result was that I had to print a local edition using a big messy printing press (and it cost me some skin, too!). I signed up a book distributor and basically agreed to give away 50% of the cover price to them from the get-go. They have been very supportive, which is nice. My books are on the shelves in bookshops and supermarkets in the UAE, Bahrain, Lebanon and, don’t even ask me why, Bombay Airport.

I’ll try not to bore you with too many of the quirks of publishing in the UAE, but it was a major mission finding a printer who actually stocked ‘novel paper’ (the stuff books are printed on is a special, ultra-light but bulky paper – and very few people in the UAE publish novels) and another one getting official ‘permission to print’ – my book had to be read by a government ‘reader’ to approve it for publication in the UAE.

My ‘reader ‘(it used to be a ‘censor’, but we’re more PC around here these days) turned out to be Palestinian and was so moved by the story of Olives he paid the fees for passing it himself! His daughter happened to find the manuscript on the kitchen table and then tweeted to me that she’d stayed up all night to finish it! I had expected the book to lose me Arab friends, yet it seems to have achieved remarkable resonance with Arab readers.

Olives was launched in December 2011 at an urban fringe event in Dubai with the usual readings and stuff. I set out to gather a database of media based in the Middle East or with an interest in the region and identify their book reviewers – Olives is a book set in Jordan that tells the story of a British journalist blackmailed by SIS into spying on the family of the Jordanian girl he’s falling in love with and has as its background theme the issue of water scarcity in that part of the world. Water is a very real problem, even an existential one, for the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean.

I decided to dedicate one hour a day to book marketing. I put up an Olives website (with links to Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Book Depository and other places to buy the book) and started a blog around the book, which explored the world of Olives – extracting scenes from the book and explaining my approach to those scenes and their characters and issues.

I sent out copies for review – and was amazed at how open to looking at a self-published project Middle East media were. I picked up some smashing reviews, which I lost no time splashing on the book website and sharing, sharing, sharing. The website, incidentally, was put together using Blogger – as simple as that.

There was a handy whiff of sulphur – some reviewers objected to the liberal use of alcohol by Jordanian Muslims in the book, while others objected to the pre-marital sex. Because nobody in the Arab world ever does that, you understand. The controversy was stoked by a prominent lady in Amman, Jordan, who objected strongly to the use of her family name in the book – Dajani is not only an extremely common name in the Levant (and, in fact, around the world), it is a prominent family of Jerusalem. And my fictional family in Olives are called Dajani. That opened up a whole – at times heated – debate about the use of ‘real’ names in fiction. The Middle East doesn’t really do that much fiction. It culminated in someone commenting on a Jordanian blog that if I had besmirched this honourable name in this way it did, indeed, merit an honour killing.

It was some pimply kid being brave from his bedroom, I’m sure. But it still pulls you up for a second when you read something like that!

All this time, I’d been Tweeting and Facebooking away – I was quite aware that I had a platform, I have several thousand followers on Twitter, a reasonably popular blog and am an active commentator on local radio and TV here. I used that platform until it started to crack at the seams – everything that happened was linked, tweeted, blogged, repurposed, dressed up and sent out to do its work again.

Alongside that, I made sure I did loads of other stuff as well – workshops on how to self-publish, readings, book club meetings – it’s so important to ensure you give and not just take when you’re using these platforms. A major break for me was the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature - the team behind this key event are ‘fans’ and loved Olives – and Beirut after it, so I get treated like a proper author at the Festival, giving workshops, doing talks and generally being around and about.

I will spare you a precise description of what it feels like to be sitting at the signing table next to Linda La Plante’s queue of eager readers clutching books to be signed – a human chain that spread into infinity next to my three waiting would-be signature collectors. I’d describe the experience as ‘humbling’…

I tried a number of experiments.

Beirut is blurbed in the back of Olives (Beirut was published in 2012) and Shemlan in the back of Beirut. I’ve run Google adwords campaigns – amazing impressions, a serious increase in traffic to the book’s website and little if no discernible effect on sales. I’ve done major giveaway campaigns, but I’d question the value of these. I’m not even sure people read those freebies.

By June 2012 I was done. Literally. I had exhausted myself, likely my audience as well. Olives had been blogged and tweeted to thousands, reviewed in media that reached tens of thousands. It had been debated, feted, courted and generally enjoyed (it’s got lots of lovely Amazon stars and everything).

I’ve sold about a thousand copies.

I took it a lot easier with Beirut – An Explosive Thriller and you can see that reflected in the Amazon reviews – two for Beirut, 18 for Olives. But I was knackered with promotion. Beirut got a website but not a blog, I didn’t have the energy left for another blog – I did use my own blog to promote the book, though – including inviting guest interviewers to ask questions of the characters in the book. Beirut has garnered fewer reviews: it doesn’t have, although it’s a more ‘commercial’ book, the strong ‘book hooks’ that Olives has – the Palestinian conflict, the water crisis and the controversies of Olives and so has gained less media attention. But it did pick up readers from the first time around – Olives won fans and those fans bought Beirut.

The launch of Beirut, by the way, was quite fun. Rather than just read from the book, I enlisted the help of an actress, a poet, an orator and a rapper to give the readings at one of my distributor’s bookshops. I convinced a nearby bar to offer a welcome glass of bubbly to guests on the grounds that many of them were heavily followed social media types and so we had a pleasant start to the after party too.

Gary and his team edited my third Middle East spy thriller – Shemlan – A Deadly Tragedy, which will publish this autumn. And then I’m going to go back into Olives style major promotional mode. Because if I’ve learned one thing from all of this, it’s that you have to kiss one HELL of a lot of frogs…

  • People are nicer than you’d think – get in touch with them, whether they be journalists, reviewers, book clubs or even literary festivals. They’ll book you/talk to you on your merits. I have been amazed at how little ‘Oh, it’s self-pubbed’ snootery I’ve encountered. I clearly have not approached the New York Times.
  • A ‘book hook’ is critical. Something in your work matters to someone, somewhere. Vintage dresses, jam making, water crises in the Levant, nuclear proliferation. Find those communities and talk to them!
  • Promotion is exhausting. Probably more investment/content creation than writing the book! Be ready for that and plan it. And make the time for it!
  • Ten thousand touches or impressions means a thousand clicks and that equals a hundred enquiries, which means ten samples and that sells a book. If that depresses you, don’t even start. Because that’s the maths. Even if your book is a QUALITY read!
  • Do not for one second think that someone enjoying or even loving your book means they’ll go bat-shit crazy marketing it for you. They won’t. We love a glass of wine, we don’t evangelise it.
  • Share your expertise, experiences and learnings – by giving to others you build community, contacts and opportunities.
  • If you’re unsure whether this is for you, ask yourself - what would you rather be picking up from the front door after the postman’s been: rejection slips or royalty cheques?

About the Author

By Gary Smailes - Co-founder at BubbleCow, helping writers to write, get published and sell more books. Google+ Twitter