My wife calls it the garage of shattered dreams. There’s a broken violin, discarded golf clubs, a pile of VHS tapes, and, beginning to gather dust, a cardboard box labelled Pottery Cottage – it’s my book.
Like millions of wannabe authors every year, this autumn I decided to self-publish. It’s been an amazing ride and, in the hope of helping fellow scribes, I thought I’d share the ups and downs.
Pottery Cottage is my second work. The first, The Invisible Girl, was published by Harper Collins ten years ago through the traditional process.
Back then it was all so simple. I’d had an idea, pitched it to an agent, wrote a proposal, it went out to auction, and within three weeks of that initial call, I had a book deal and a four-figure advance.
“…within three weeks of that initial call, I had a book deal and a four-figure advance.”
I could relax, pour myself another gin and tonic, and let the publisher grapple with the hassle of editing, design, distribution and marketing. I now realise what a fluke that was.
My new book is another non-fiction – the kidnap and killings of a family in the Peak District in the seventies.
I spent years researching the background and experimenting, writing from different points of view, in various styles and editing, editing, editing, like a chef reducing a soup.
The backstory was clunky and slowed everything down, so I filleted it. In the end, I plumped for a fast-moving, simple, streamlined prose, almost an extended screenplay, squeezed into a three-day narrative.
I thought I’d invented an exciting new genre, but a series of yesses, noes and maybes from agents and publishers left me frustrated and deflated. A typical reaction was this e mail a year ago.
“Alan, this is brilliant, truly gripping. My brother who comes in on the tube with me and is an author himself, thought so too. You write brilliantly. Can you come to London to meet? I want to get this out Monday to catch the Christmas round among publishers. I’ll forward a contract for our services. We want you on our books.”
Two days later, from the same agent… “Our editorial director doesn’t think it works. He thinks the story suits a more traditional non-fiction approach. I’m afraid we’re gonna have to pass.”
Then, when word reached me that a detective in the case was planning his own book, I had to move fast. Self-publishing became my only choice.
I decided on a two-tier strategy. I would sell digitally and in paperback via Amazon, whilst at the same time print my own copies for local distribution.
Fearful of an expensive flop, I was desperate to keep the unit cost down. In doing so, I broke several golden rules. I ‘edited’ the book myself, and designed the jacket.
I must have read the text a hundred times, neurotically hunting down mis-spellings and typos, which seemed to come out to play at night and infect my manuscript.
For the jacket, I scoured iStockphoto.com and found an image of a car crashed on a snowy moorland road. It was ideal for my story. The site has an editing app too and I spent hours playing with typefaces and colours. I opted for a dramatic bold red newsy serif type over a bleak, grey hue. Mindful of a mostly local readership, I incorporated ‘Peak District’ into the heading.
To give the book authority, I asked a crime-writer friend to review it, and used his gushing endorsement on the front as a sales come-on. I also lifted a quote from the Daily Mail from 1977 – ‘A story of inexcusable and inexplicable incompetence.’ And, to add a slightly more academic feel to the authorship, I added the initial of my middle name. My only cost up until printing stage was £23 licensing the photo.
I needed a website to drive and deliver sales, and found via Google a very competent and reasonably-priced local designer who freelanced at night and weekends and who set up a Pay Pal account in my name. I was lucky too to have a friend who offered me mates’ rates to print the book.
But how many to order? And could I get it into the major book stores?
Armed with a dummy – the jacket wrapped around 250 blank pages – I toured bookstores, craft shops, cafes, garden centres and post offices. And, yes, they did judge the book by its cover.
“I toured bookstores, craft shops, cafes, garden centres and post offices. And, yes, they did judge the book by its cover.”
I was delighted to discover that both WH Smiths and Waterstones had schemes to encourage local authors – even if they did take a sizeable percentage of the proceeds.
I became obsessive, never without copies in the boot. No-one was safe – my pilates class, physio, keep-fit trainer, and fellow grand-parents and parents at the school gate.
I wrapped, signed and labelled books at night, even hand-delivering – people thrilled to find the author at the door brandishing a signed copy.
Once, I was on the doorstep five minutes after a woman had placed an order. Faster than Deliveroo, I joked. Her face was a picture of delight and disbelief.
Marketing was a mix of traditional and social media. I plugged it on Facebook groups across the counties involved, tailoring the message to specific areas, like local newspaper billboards.
Community magazines ran features written by me, including of course, details of how to purchase via my potterycottagebook.com website.
And then, my biggest break. Waterstones in Chesterfield on their own volition, tweeted ‘our fastest-selling book right now is Pottery Cottage by Alan R Hurndall, which investigates the shocking murders committed by an escaped prisoner in the 70s Peak District.’
That gave the book credibility and oxygen. Suddenly everyone was buying it. Outlets who’d previously only wanted half a dozen, were now ordering boxes of 23 and giving the book a more prominent display.
Reviews were extremely positive, nearly all saying they couldn’t put it down. Word of mouth kicked in. Sales staff were endorsing it. At Hackney House in Barlow, Derbyshire, every one of the eight workers read it and were recommending it to customers. To date, they’ve sold 80 copies. Not bad for a café and gift shop with just one book – mine.
I found too, that because of the disparate outlets, I was reaching an audience that didn’t normally buy literature. One woman wrote to me that I’d encouraged her to read again. And her children were following her example.
As I write, Pottery Cottage is now on its THIRD reprint with sales over 2,000, virtually all in a ten-mile radius of my home in Dronfield. My ambition now is to attract a national and maybe international readership.
Soon of course it’ll all die down and I’ll be left to reflect on the whole self-publishing experience. The main benefits are being able to engage directly with sellers and buyers, having complete control of the editorial and marketing process, and solely owning a body of work that will hopefully continue to earn revenue ad infinitum.
“The main benefits are being able to engage directly with sellers and buyers.”
The downside is that it’s damn hard work in an unchartered field, with sleepless nights. And of course, having no time to be getting on with my next writing project.