Author Interview #1 — Jane Davis
We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some great freelancers from inside the industry. And while we’ve learned a great deal about the practicalities of writing, we were left wanting to hear from the other side of the creative process - the writer themselves.
Well, good news everyone! We’re now going to be featuring interviews with some of the indie author scene’s established darlings and rising stars. We’ll be talking about how it feels to be at the vanguard of the movement, what they’ve learned getting here, and how they make it work.
REEDSY: I was just enjoying the extract you have on your site from An Unchoreographed Life
JANE DAVIS: Thank you. While I shy away from the label ‘Women’s Fiction’ I think of that novel as the most ‘Women’s Fiction’ thing I’ve written. Although, having said that, one of the last reviews I had was from a single father saying much how he related to it, and that was very interesting.
REEDSY: I’ve never really ‘got’ the whole idea of there being a label ‘Women’s Fiction’ - it seems to not say much about the work it describes.
JD: Sometimes fiction gets pigeonholed with inappropriate labels. That was my problem with ‘Half-truths and White Lies’. I was pigeonholed as an author of Women’s Fiction, and I’ve massively shyed away from that since. But maybe [with An Unchoreographed Life] I’ve come full-circle. Prostitution was an issue I wanted to address at the time when changes in the law were proposed, but since it’s such a sensitive issue, I chose to address it from the point of view of a mother/daughter relationship.
REEDSY: So how do you describe your writing?
JD: Well, it’s been called literary, but I’m slightly embarrassed by that. I think it has this connotation of being highbrow and inaccessible. For me, my fiction is all about the characters. I put them in these terrible scenarios and feed them to the lions. I try to write sympathetic characters but then I make terrible things happen to them!
So I suppose I write contemporary-stroke-literary. I put the label, ‘historical’ on ‘I Stopped Time,’ my homage to the pioneers of photography and it’s consistently been my best-seller. I think that’s because historical fiction is a label people relate to more than ‘literary’ or ‘contemporary’. They know where ‘historical’ sits. ‘I Stopped Time’ is actually a time-lapse novel, which goes between the present day and the lifetime of a woman who lived to the age of 108. But with the ‘historical’ label, people have an expectation of what they’re going to get - whereas ‘literary’ can be quite off-putting. Some people I interview describe their work as ‘general fiction’ - I don’t have a feel for what that means either.
REEDSY: It’s a sort of negative definition - telling you basically nothing…
JD: I think the fact that my fiction is cross-genre - that I think of myself as a brand - is a large part of why being an indie author suits me. Random House didn’t take my follow-up to ‘Half-Truths and White Lies,’ because it wasn’t ‘Women’s Fiction’ and they had published me under their Black Swan imprint, which is exclusively for Women’s Fiction. I simply wasn’t aware of the implications. But at that point I wasn’t thinking long term. I had won a competition and was happy to be published, however that came about.
I saw Adele Parks speak at the London Author Fair. She told us that when she was first published, she was given the choice of marketing her fiction as commercial or literary, and when she asked what the difference was, she was told, “Well, literary sells 7,000 copies and commercial sells 70,000 copies.” I’d not heard it in terms as blunt as that before, but I don’t think those figures were unusual in those days. Of course, post-2008, book sales have taken a nose-dive.
REEDSY: Can literary fiction work without the support of a publisher? One argument against self-publishing goes that it can only sustain work that meets certain standards of viability in terms of sales. How do you find it?
JD: I’ve only been doing this for two years, but my sales figures have only really pushed upwards with cross-selling. When people buy one of my books they do seem to come back and buy all of them. I’m not selling in big numbers by any means. I’m willing to give books away in order to hook readers…
As for traditionally published authors, I’ve spoken to a few who are thinking of going indie when their deals come up for renewal. Most are under two book contracts and they hear rumours that those contracts won’t be renewed under the same terms, and there’s also a great deal of dissatisfaction from the authors themselves about the lack of marketing support offered by publishers. Advances are also considerably lower. When I was at the London Book Fair this year, I was hearing about figures of £5000 for one book or £8000 for two books. Take from that the cost of marketing and there’s not a lot left in the pot.
However, the authors I have met on the speaking circuit still firmly believe that bookshops are their realm. Are you familiar with the ALLi’s ‘Open up to Indies’ campaign?’ I’ve been going out and talking in bookshops and libraries, sometimes pairing up with traditionally published authors, because bringing a crowd puller obviously helps to opens doors. The estimates are that 70% of books will be self-published by 2020. It’s very difficult to think that bookshops will only want to offer 30% of what’s available. And it’s quite clear that the 70% is going to include books by some of the authors bookshops and libraries currently stock. A stance against stocking self-published fiction is plainly unrealistic, but authors need to put themselves in the places of booksellers and librarians. Quality control is an issue that concerns them.
REEDSY: I feel like the myth of the uniformly low quality of indie books is starting to die out… slowly, but it’s fading.
JD: I hope so. I use accreditation services that give a clear indication that my books have passed rigorous assessment. And the rise of small presses of course is continuing . Their publications are performing very well in competitions, very well. I went to a book launch this week for an author who has just been snapped up by a small publisher, Burning Eye Books. They publish mainly poetry. In fact, this is their first fiction title. Alice Furse self-published in January and they approached her. I think she’ll do very well out of it because they only have one fiction author to promote right now, and having that concentration of force behind you is fantastic. It’s the kind of support you might expect from an agent but wouldn’t normally get from a publisher.
Author collectives are also enjoying a great deal of success. Having a name and collective power helps. I didn’t have enough forethought to do any of those things! I went ahead and published under my own name - I think I’d do things slightly differently now.
REEDSY: What would you do differently?
JD: More preparation. It’s too easy to publish. Don’t push the button unless you’re absolutely certain that the work is as good as it can possibly be. The problem is you’re too close to the book to judge that yourself - even though I used a copy editor and several proofreaders, my first self-published book went out with 13 typos in it. It’s easy to update it if you’ve got the control of the manuscript, but actually I was quite embarrassed that there was a first edition out there… The money I spent on printing books that I then ditched would have been better spent on a further proofread. Because of course you can’t just hire one copy editor and one proofreader. The process needs multiple pairs of eyes.
I think that rather than use the free ISBNs offered by self-publishing services, having ISBNs registered under your own name - so that you are shown as the publisher of your own work - helps. When you go to a bookshop there isn’t the ‘Amazon prejudice.’ I don’t put an awful lot of energy into getting my books onto shelves, because it’s very hard for me to break even on the percentages I’m offered, and the sale or return model doesn’t work for most indie authors. Then there’s the question of staying stocked. Even when I was traditionally published, bookstores didn’t stock my title automatically. I had to go into branches week after week saying “Right, you’ve sold the copies you had on the shelves, can you order more?” It’s very time-consuming. A couple of indie shops stock my book, and they are amazingly supportive. When I’ve done talks at Waterstones they’ve been happy to stock my books on the night, but they wouldn’t ordinarily because I publish via Createspace. As a result of being in the Smashwords Premium Catalogue, my paperbacks are now available online with WH Smiths and Blackwells now, which was a surprise, so maybe the tide is turning. In the future I’ll think about buying my own ISBN and register it under my own name.
Since joining ALLi I’ve become a lot more aware of these issues - all the little things which might hold you back.
REEDSY: How much of your time now do you spend on writing vs managing the self-publishing element?
JD: I’m quite active on social media. I had a lot of talks over the summer, which took time to set up. It’s not a case of going into a library and they’ll ask you to come along in the next month. Sometimes the impact of the ground work you’re doing comes one or two years down the line. I think, in all honesty, I spend more than 50% of my time on things like social media, sharing content, interviewing authors for my website… Of all of those activities, interviewing authors has been the most helpful. Initially I approached everyone who appeared on the Guardian’s list of the top 30 indie books of 2013. There’s a very supportive community of indie authors out there. Interviews take up quite a lot of time, but I think they’re incredibly worthwhile. You don’t get immediate rewards, but an author you have interviewed might perhaps read and review your books, or offer a return interview…
My third indie release was in November 2013. I had no publicity, so it was a very soft launch. April 2014 I released ‘An Unchoreographed Life’, and I was inundated with offers from people offering me guest blog posts, interviews, etc. The difference was that I had offered that facility to other authors. It’s very much a reciprocal thing. So marketing is not always direct marketing. It’s the soft-sell and building brand awareness. I’d say more than 50% of my time is spent on it - I wouldn’t want to say how much more than 50%!
REEDSY: Would you think about outsourcing the marketing at some point?
JD: Well, I have no budget. I recently relaunched my website and paid The Curved House to design it. I think it was money well-spent, even though it will knock out any profit I might have made next year. My original website had been built for one book, and I had tweaked it over time, but the look wasn’t cohesive. Now, it will be easier to add to, and I’m glad I’ve invested the money. But my budget is generally minimal. I often barter with people, offering to help out in exchange for return services.
REEDSY: How about production?
JD: I try to stick to a budget of £1000 - £1500. I think that’s a sensible level because only 5% of books sell more than 1000 copies. Interestingly, most authors I know aren’t making money from their sales, they make it from other services they offer.
In terms of where I spend the money, my cover designs are really important to me. They are my brand. None of them have cost very much. I use a graphic designer. I come up with the design myself, and he executes it. I also use a team of beta readers who have more or less replaced the need for a structural edit (something I used to pay for), and a copy editor and a proofreader. The typesetting and e-book conversion I do myself. In addition to writing my own stuff, I also do work for other authors as part of bartering process.
REEDSY: Are there services you see authors being tempted to neglect?
JD: It’s not always a question of ‘neglecting’ services. You have to look at the reasons behind choices. I know some authors who are very against using a copyeditor, not because they’re ‘unprofessional,’ but because they’re very anti-censorship and see using a copyeditor as a form of that. However, if your reason for not using a copy editor or a proofreader is lack of funds - I would say think again. Save the money and invest or decide what skills you have that you can offer someone else.
When you’re starting out it’s tremendously hard but I’ve had massive support, even before I was a member of ALLi. Not necessarily from my writer’s group. You’re not a novelty there, everyone’s got a book they want readers for - but the Keep Fit group I’ve been going to for 25 years. I’ve found some fantastic beta readers and proofreaders there. The thing is not to be afraid to ask for help. There’s a great TED lecture by Amanda Palmer about the power of asking, and people want to be involved in a project, especially one where they can use skills that they don’t get the chance to use at work. My beta readers work for no more than a mention in the back of the book, maybe a coffee and a cake to talk about how the book made them feel. It’s not all about spending money. It’s about investing your budget in the right places and collaborating with a team you respect. It’s a mistake to think ‘expensive’ means ‘quality.’ Some of the services I have been happiest with have cost me nothing at all.
REEDSY: Thank you for your time Jane