KATH: You were the first person to sign up with Amazon for Kindle, weren't you? So maybe you should start...
SUE: I think it’s arguable which of us became interested in Kindling first. I remember talking with you years ago about writers being pushed into self-publishing by the way things were going in the publishing industry. We’d both seen what had happened in the music industry, and it seemed plain – to us anyway – that the publishing industry would go the same way.
I remember suggestions that the Scattered Authors’ Society become a co-operative publisher, and people saying, ‘We should write and let publishers publish!’ – things like that. But publishers weren’t publishing many of us.
KATH: That’s true, and if I had not been having such a frustrating time creatively I might not have discovered the Kindle route so soon. But I had three more-or-less complete manuscripts by 2010 which were not contracted, as well as a short story collection looking for a home, and that was also the year my publishers began to let my backlist titles go out of print. So I could see all these books I’d written not being available for people to read even if they wanted to, and that seemed crazy. So I started reading some US blogs, got rather excited about the possibilities, and decided to take advantage of not having any publishing deadlines to teach myself how to turn them into e-books.
SUE: I remember you saying that kindling had made you excited about writing again. And I was in a similar position. I had – and have! - a long back-list of out-of-print books, one being my Carnegie winner, ‘The Ghost Drum’. Its sequels too, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance. When I give talks, people come up and ask me where they can get copies, and I’ve had e-mails asking about them. What really riled me was finding old copies on the internet, selling for £40 each – not a penny of which came to me, who’d written it! The most I’d ever made from a copy was about 10p.
I felt like writing another full-blooded fantasy, so I suggested to my agent that I wrote a new book for the series, so we could offer all four as a package. She was sure she could sell them, so I wrote ‘Ghost Spell’. My agent liked it, and showed it to a German agent, who swore she would not rest from mental strife until she’d sold the German rights. That was two years ago, and none of the books have sold.
Meanwhile, the proposal for a third book in the ‘Sterkarm’ series has been with Scholastic for as long. My agent has formally requested them to make an offer or return the rights to the first two books, but they’ve done neither. And I had about six synopsis and proposals out there – none of them doing anything. So when I heard about self-publishing on Kindle, to say I was interested was understating it a bit. I fully intend to publish all my ‘Ghost World’ books on Kindle – and if I have no offer for Sterkarm 3 before I finish it, I shall publish that on Kindle too.
KATH: And as a fan of your books, I’ll be first to download them! But although I enjoy reading shorter fiction and non-fiction on my Kindle, for a longer novel I do still prefer a paper edition, so I hope your publishers offer for them soon.
As an author, I much prefer working with a publisher to bring my books to readers, even if it means making less money in the long run. Not only for the professional editing and production – if I’m Kindling a new title, I can always employ a freelance to do this work – but because a good publisher does things properly publicity-wise, which is why I’m delighted to have recently placed one of the manuscripts mentioned above with Templar as part of a four-book deal… though the other two I am now keeping back for possible Kindling at a later date. If this sounds a bit like sitting on the fence, then it’s only what (some) publishers are doing with our out-of-print backlist titles at the moment!
SUE: Is the Templar series the one about King Arthur’s daughter? I like the sound of that – and I don’t think you’re sitting on the fence. This is a whole new game, nobody’s sure of the rules, and we all have to play it as best we can. I certainly wouldn’t turn down a contract with a conventional publisher if one offered me a good deal! But they aren’t offering – despite my agent telling me a short while ago that I’m ‘still very highly thought of in the business,’ despite people telling me that I’m ‘a very good writer’ – it doesn’t pay the mortgage! The only kind of work I’m getting is work with educational publishers, writing early readers. Now this is fun and interesting work, which I enjoy – but it isn’t a living. And if – as the American blogs you’ve passed on to me seem to say – there is decent money to be made from self-publishing on Kindle, then I’m in!
KATH: Yes, King Arthur’s daughter. But I don’t have an agent to tell me how the business thinks of me these days so my name might be mud...
SUE: I doubt it!
KATH: (grins) Yet it’s no good being highly thought of unless that translates into book deals. You can’t eat praise, so I guess it all comes down to the bottom line. I am very happy working with traditional publishers if this enabIes me to pay my bills, but a few years ago falling royalties, an unexpected gap in contracts, and rising expenses tipped this equation the wrong way. Like you, I do not have any other means of support so I need to earn enough from my writing to keep a roof over my head and put food on the table. I sat down and did the math and worked out that I need to publish 10 books on Kindle selling an average of 100 copies per month (in a worldwide market) to earn me a living. That’ll be achievable, I think, as more people get Kindles, and some self-published authors in the US are selling far more than that already. We just need to work out how best to do the publicity. And that’s where we really need to put in the time – no amount of self promotion can ever match what a good publisher does for our books, but we don’t need to satisfy shareholders so we don’t need to sell as many copies.
SUE: Publicity, yes! I keep hearing that we need to stick with conventional publishers because ‘they handle the publicity’. But how much publicity do most of us get from our publishers? Don’t we hear, again and again, that we’re expected to do it for ourselves? So let’s do it for ourselves – using the Scattered Authors, using the internet, going viral.
KATH: We’re already doing it…
SUE: You’ve been doing it for a while, with your poster campaign, your website, your blogs – I feel you’re way ahead of me there too. And now you’ve started Kindle Authors UK! I’m trying, but I’m a long way from building the following you have on-line, or having anything like as lively a blog.
KATH: Well, I’ve made a start but I’ve still a long way to go. The hardest part for me is having the confidence to push my own books. But I think joint publicity works well, and joint blogs are much more interesting than going solo. The real difficulty for me Kindling new titles is believing in my work if an editor has not said “yes”.
SUE: I enjoy working with editors – but I’ve always relied mainly on my own judgement. I’ve never been a member of a writing circle, I very rarely ask people to read my work before I submit it to an agent or publisher. I’ve always been prepared to flatly say, ‘No,’ to editors who ask me to make changes, if I don’t think the changes improve the work. I won’t claim never to have made mistakes! - but the loneliness of the long-distance writer doesn’t bother me. Especially not since I joined the Scattered Authors - now I’m always down at the SAS’s virtual village square, picking up all the goss.
KATH: I do understand the need to rely on your own judgement. As Stephen King says in his excellent book “On Writing”: you must close the door until the first draft is done. In my experience letting an editor in too early is like trying to polish the chair before the tree has even grown.
SUE: I completely agree with that! I hardly ever talk much about what I’m writing: certainly not until I’ve got a more-or-less completed draft, and I know I’m going to finish it. When I have, I may agree that an editor’s suggestions will improve what I’ve written, because by then I’m able to take a much more objective view. But let me get my house built of bricks before I let anyone come huffing and puffing!
KATH: Maybe we’ll just need to adjust to a new way of thinking, and let readers decide rather than the traditional gatekeepers of agents or editors or the head offices of bookselling chains. But I’ll still miss the physical book.
SUE: Books can be very beautiful objects – and I remember loving the ‘toasty’ smell of old books as a child, and their coloured illustrations covered by tissue paper. Still, I’m more focused on the words than the book: the information, the story, not the book as object. And I’m certain that, in a short time, Kindle books will become beautiful. A friend showed me a graphic novel on his i-phone, and it was beautiful – strong graphics with glowing colours. I’ve no doubt Amazon are working on achieving the same even as we speak: they’d be fools if they’re not. And music can be added to e-books, and animation. They’ll become as beautiful as books, but in a different way.
Maybe we’re heading back to a time when a paper book was a status symbol: rare, expensive, hand-made – like haut-couture and bespoke furniture. Maybe that’s where writers will make the big money in the future! – writing something in praise of some billionaire, which will be copied onto hand-made linen paper by a calligrapher, with gilded, illuminated capitals, all bound in a leather with gold, jewelled clasps. Meanwhile, the hoi-polloi will be reading their Kindles and i-phones, and carrying libraries around with them.
KATH: I’ll leave the billionaire’s memoirs to someone else, I think… but I like the idea of carrying libraries around! It’ll make moving house so much easier, and I’ve already discovered the joys of travelling with my Kindle. As for dancing e-books, I have plans for a Kindle version of my YA Genghis Khan romance “Red Moon” where the reader can decide the story structure. That wouldn’t be possible in a paper book, so I’m quite excited about it.
SUE: Oooh, I’m looking forward to Red Moon now! Not only to the story – which will be a cracker, judging by I Am The Great Horse - but to how you plan to make it dance! And I’ve just had a vision of Genghis Khan break-dancing, which has seriously distracted me…
But my next Kindle project is to get all four of my Ghost World books on-line, starting with the Carnegie winner, Ghost Drum. I have the older of my two brothers hard at work producing covers for them – and speaking of publicity, I’ve commissioned the younger bro’ to do a cartoon strip based around me and my family of computers, which I can publish on my blog. The idea is to use it to increase traffic to my blog, and give my brothers’ work, some publicity too. They’re both talented artists.
The other day I told my partner that I’d scanned Ghost Drum and OCRed it, so I could edit in Windows and kindle. He was thoughtful for a moment, then said, “Six months ago, I wouldn’t have understood a single word of that…” It’s a huge learning curve even for the bystanders!
KATH: Yes, it’s a whole new world, isn’t it? I keep thinking of Jurassic Park, when the artificially engineered supposedly all-female dinosaurs start breeding: “Life finds a way”. Maybe, after books have been artificially controlled by treating them as cans of beans for many years, our stories are now “finding a way”?
SUE: There’s an image to end with –dinosaurs leaping from baked bean cans and sprinting away, every one ‘em clutching its own Kindle!
Catch up with Sue and Katherine’s Kindle adventures at http://kindleauthorsuk.blogspot.com