Publishing will eat itself - Mo Fanning Author
Book on fire

Publishing will eat itself

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Book on fire

Like most industries, the world of publishing is in flux. Digital has fast become king – whether this be e-books, audiobooks or the flexibility of print-on-demand. Lessons learned by a technology-resistant music industry appear to have been learned – by making available a wide range of quality material at a fair price, the move to digital piracy has largely been sidestepped.

But one area of the business isn’t keeping up. Traditional publishing houses remain far from agile. They take few risks. They continue to merge and limit competition both for authors and creatives looking to build a career. A new author signed to a Big Five publishing house can expect 18 month delays before their work hits the shops. An ambitious and talented marketing executive with editorial skills can expect to work for no money at all – provided they have the right degree and a face that fits. And this lack of agility or appetite for risk has a knock-on effect.

Finding an agent

“I’m afraid your novel isn’t the right fit for my list at this time” says nothing to an author trying to find an agent. Certainly, like any form of art, publishing is a subjective business and what one agent can’t see themselves selling, another might grab with both hands. Bonnie Garmus endured 98 rejections on the road to New York Times bestselling status for her brilliant book ‘Lessons in Chemistry’.

When an agent tells a writer that something isn’t right for their ‘list’ at this time, what do they actually mean? Sure, 90% of what the average agent (or their assistant) reads is chaff, but there’s a steady supply of well-written, tightly edited stories with a start, middle and end. These ‘lists’ of which they speak are shaped by the whims and demands of a conservative publishing industry.

I’ve been on the receiving end of an agent email that stated: “It’s the sort of book that needs to be out in the world.” Another told me, “I couldn’t put this down and read into the night. The ending had me in tears – of happiness, I should add.” Both agents rejected me.

Being a hot young thing

I’m not a hot young thing with an Insta account. I don’t have it in me to influence someone to turn up the heating, let alone buy stuff they don’t need. I’m a working class gay man in his late 50s with runaway midriff and a penchant for darkness – though I loved the last Abba album, so maybe there’s hope. I’ve got a degree, but it’s not in anything useful. My father ran a fencing company. The only time I was ever on telly was due to a closed circuit camera set up in the window of my local branch of Dixons.

To these set-in-their-way publishers, I’m the polar opposite of catnip. Agents know this. If they can’t sell my book to a big publisher and secure a decent marketing deal, they’ll make no money. So they’re pretty much pre-programmed to hit reject.

My younger, more saleable friends who have secured deals point out it’s not quite the passport to sitting in a penthouse, sipping champagne and dictating novels. Of course, they love the validation of being published by a third party. They get access to an editorial team, and someone willing to download stock images and overlay fonts for the cover, but that’s where it ends. Advances are tiny – the big money goes elsewhere. As does the marketing spend. For all the claims that publishers make to the contrary, a huge advance means a huge marketing budget. How else do they stand a chance of making back their cash?

Big advance = big marketing spend

If a publisher spends tuppence on the author advance, they’ll likely spend half that on marketing. And that’s if the author is lucky. Any available money goes into the edit and artwork. Increasingly, published authors are told the marketing is down to them. It’s possible to pick up tips online, or take credible courses in book marketing (links at end of article) or even pay a consultant to do all this for you, but the slog of building a website, running a mailing list, creating a social media following – that’s down to the writer.

It got me thinking. What’s the point in knocking myself out trying to convince a gatekeeper to submit my work to one of these ivory towers? Putting together a submission pack takes time to get right. I can lose days researching agents, writing pitches, following incredibly specific guidelines. Often not hearing a word back.

On the other hand, I could spend my time writing and pay an experienced editor to knock my book into shape. I could bone up on marketing. Experienced people will design my book covers – many laid off by publishing houses. Typesetting the words is free with online tools. Ingram Spark helps get books into any bookshop in the world.

What it’s going to cost?

If I’m being honest, to really produce a decent, saleable book and market it, you’re looking at something between £3-5,000. You can cut some corners if your skill set allows. Do it right and the money will be recouped. Slowly at first, but as you create more books and people catch on, it speeds up. So far, I’ve made back every penny spent on editing, designing and marketing my books with enough left over for a new (modest) kitchen and a (low budget) weekend in New York.

I applied to agents this time around, and was surprised by the number who simply left me hanging without a single word in reply beyond their autoresponder. And don’t get me started on agents who ask for a full manuscript then provide not one word of feedback. These are the sort of agents who feed the problem, bowing down to publishers who only want a certain type of writer.

Go it alone

My prediction is the Big Five will roll on, producing their celebrity memoirs, TV show tie-ins, celebrity novels and when the wind blows right, a handful of best-selling full-time writers. They’ll make money, but just as in music, they’ll be seen as the conservative top tier. Slow moving, missing out on the big new talent and seen as a no-go zone for anyone new. Agents will become less and less important to them. The back office talent will go elsewhere. To independent houses who don’t demand an Oxbridge education, unpaid internships or unquestioning support of Terf authors.

Independent writing has already gained credibility. Five years ago, it was a joke for many. Still tainted by the vanity publishing brush. There was a glut of trite, poorly edited crap out there. It still exists, but it doesn’t sell. Authors who are prepared to go the extra mile and match what’s on offer at a publishing house will still find readers. And if that continues at its current rate, then traditional publishing will surely eat itself.

My current list of writing resources

I’ve benefited from a bunch of low-cost and free writing resources and wanted to share them with anyone looking to kick their writing up a gear. Some paid tools and platforms have free tasters or trials, so give them a go!

Cover design and marketing collateral design tools

Canva: Far and away the best tool to design your book covers, marketing banners and adverts. There are templates where you just change the name and a bunch of more advanced tools to inspire new ideas. There’s a free version that will meet pretty much all your needs and a pro version that’s about £12 a month. The learning curve is slight and it’s proven to be the backbone of this website and my last bunch of book covers.

Bookbrush: Similar to Canva but more aimed at books. It’s good for simple animations and creating book trailers as it offers royalty free music and animation settings that are harder to master in Canva. I will say though the result is decidedly home made. It’s not a patch on Canva for looks. You might find the tools work best with Canva created images or stuff you build yourself in Photoshop or Illustrator if you have that skill.

Where to publish

There’s a shed load of places to load your manuscript up and get it on sale. Here are some I have used and can recommend.

KDP: The Amazon-powered publish-on-demand website that’s perfect for e-books. Tools-a-plenty to let you get the job looking just right and a free ISBN if you only plan to sell on Amazon – and I’d say more than 60% of my sales come from an Amazon site, so it’s a good bet. They also produce print books, but that’s slightly more of a learning curve and be warned, if you publish through here, NO OTHER BOOKSTORE will stock your work, despite what Amazon claims – even if you use your own ISBN!

Lulu: The grand daddy of Publish-on-demand. Really easy to use. Like Amazon, you get a free ISBN or can bring one of your own to the party. I used this years ago and my books turned up in some (but only some) other stores. It’s a brilliant resource if you’re looking to create a giveaway or proof copy before committing to publishing. For example, if you want to see how different cover art designs look or find it easier to proof read from a paperback. The books are fairly pricey and if you sell through Lulu, royalties will be low. BUT it does everything and does it well.

Ingram Spark: The self-publishing spin-off of a much bigger operation so you do get a lot of those big house benefits with distribution. Global coverage and pricing that lets you make  a nice royalty rate, plus you stay in control of pricing. There’s more learning to do with set-up, but lots of tools and templates and help files. You’ll need to bring your own ISBN to the table. Usually if I load a book here, within four days it’s on every Amazon site, then within two weeks on most the other major names. It costs around £50 to load an ebook and print version, with a revisions cost of £25 – though see Alliance of Independent Authors below and you’d get it FREE!

Smashwords: The ebook Gods. A long-running site I used back in the day but moved away from as I found it confused my distribution – I’d highly recommend this though if you go down the KDP route. Load the same title onto this site and it’ll get into all the major stockists within days. It’s free to set up!

Marketing advice

Marketing is the thing that will make or break your book. Scrimp here and you’re doomed! Beware of the wolves though, you can hand over a lot of cash for nothing. Find out where the bigger authors in your genre hang out with social media and try to build relationships by interacting.

Empowered author: This is a free Facebook group for authors to share ideas and tips on marketing. Sam Missingham and Katie Sadler know their stuff and are generous with their time and advice. There’s a website too with paid resources that takes things deeper and a range of perks/discounts.

Random Tours: A book Blog Tour is a great way to drum up interest for your new title. A blog tour organiser sends your book to several book bloggers who will either post a review, a Q&A or a passage of your book in sequence when it’s their ‘turn’ in the tour, and these get posted all over social media. They are a superb way of broadening your reach and spreading the word about your book. Each of these bloggers will have many hundreds of followers. They cost between £100 and £150 and the organiser does much of the work. Make sure some stops are on Instagram and ask for a review only tour otherwise people just post the cover and the blurb without comments. Anne Cater of Random Tours has helped me out twice now and I can highly recommend her.

Books Go Social: This is one I’m not entirely sure about. There’s a lot of blither and packages that amount to very little on offer. Much of their offer is aimed at the US market, despite claims to be universal. What it is good for is getting cut price access to a service called NetGalley. This is where you post a copy of your book and give it away free. Often in exchange for Amazon and Goodreads reviews at launch. Their NetGalley service is around a quarter of the price of going direct. Otherwise, I’d say steer clear of their other fabulous sounding promo packs, I can’t honestly say they’ve helped me shift a single copy.

GOOD writing advice and training

Jericho Writers: This is the source of all good things – a bunch of useful online learning packages, access to professional advice – mostly paid, but vetted suppliers on the whole. I’ll admit, it’s not proven to be ‘essential’ to me, but others swear by it.

Cornerstones: This is a literary consultancy that can find you an editor or even teach you how to edit your own novel like a professional. I’ve done their course and found it absolutely invaluable. There’s also a book available if you’re strapped for cash to get you started.

Faber Academy: Long and short courses. I’d highly recommend their flagship eight-month writing a novel course to get to grips with pacing and structure. As with any course, you’ll likely pick up a writing partner or two along the way. And that’s worth its weight in gold alone!

Curtis Brown Creative: Much like Faber, though I’ve only done their shorter courses and whilst they were competent, I’ll argue the content to be a tad on the generic side. There is a hint of being a hothouse for the agency though, so maybe that’s your bag?

Finding editors

Reedsy and Jericho will put you in touch with editors – the latter being more keenly priced in my experience. But what if you want a few online tools to help along the way and knock the basics into shape before you go to a pro for that final polish?

Prowriting Aid: AI powered grammar checker, style editor, and writing mentor in one package. The settings are easy to customise for your genre and language and at least 90% of the feedback useful. I wouldn’t let anything out into the world without first running it through the tool. They run price promotions on a regular basis.

Autocrit: I used this once and I’m not so sure it was any use, but some people love it. It’s here as a suggestion. There’s a decent free product, with paid membership on top. I tried that and thought it money thrown away. ProWritingAid does it better.

Free typesetting

Reedsy: A free online editing tool that formats and outputs your book at a PDF, epub or mobi format for upload to one of the publishing sites. Genuinely free. Incredibly useful. There’s a marketplace to put you in touch with editors and designers, but that’s a little more ‘buyer beware’. I’d also advise to avoid their ‘Discovery’ service. It’s a waste of time and money.


By Mo Fanning

Mo Fanning is a British author of dark romantic comedies including the Book of the Year nominated bestseller 'The Armchair Bride', 'Rebuilding Alexandra Small' and 2022's hit holiday romcom 'Ghosted'.

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