USA Today bestselling historical novelist Helen Hollick is a great example of a hybrid author – trade-published (in the USA) and self-published (in the UK). A champion for indie authors everywhere, she is renowned for her generosity to other writers. She is a great role model for anyone seeking to embrace the freedoms offered by the self-publishing path, and one of her novels was included in the Guardian newspaper's recent list of top quality self-published books.
What's the secret of your success?
I have been a published author for twenty years, and it has been hard slog, with a lot of laughs and a few tears along the way.
When I was simultaneously dropped by my UK mainstream publisher and my agent several years ago, I thought my world had collapsed. I spent two weeks sobbing, then pulled myself together and started to think positively. Historical Fiction (which I was writing then) had taken a downturn in popularity, which is why Random House UK decided not to reprint my backlist of novels.
My ex-agent suggested I write something in the fantasy genre instead, so I came up with an idea for a pirate-based nautical yarn. This was when the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie had been released and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow had stirred many hearts into a piratical fluttering. I wanted to read stories along a similar theme – an adventure with a rogue of a hero, full of nautical fun with a dash of fantasy. Indiana Jones meets Jack Sparrow, crossed with Richard Sharpe with a hint of James Bond. And it was to be very firmly for adults, with adult content.
My ex-agent was convinced the movie was for children, though, and no adults would be interested in a pirate adventure. She gave me an ultimatum: either I write it for boys, or I find a new agent. We parted company.
What was the single best thing you ever did?
Following on from above, after sounding out a few publishers I knew, and being politely turned down, I realised I was not going to be picked up by any of the traditional publishing houses. So I decided to go indie.
Doing so was a sharp learning curve, with several mistakes along the way, but it was the best decision I have ever made. I obtained the copyright back for most of my books and republished. After all, I had nothing to prove: my Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy : The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner, Shadow of the King and the story of events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Harold the King (titled I Am The Chosen King in the US) had already been published once as mainstream in the UK and were also mainstream in the USA. To indie-publish Sea Witch, the first of my Pirate Voyages was a leap of faith, however, in both my ability as writer and in the potential popularity of my pirate captain, Jesamiah Acorne. But if you don’t believe in yourself, or your characters, there is no point in writing. Only you, the author, can initially bring that spark of faith to your work.
Did you get lucky? What happened?
I made mistakes when I first went indie – lots of them, but I think they were lucky in a way, because they quickly taught me what not to do. (Although I am still learning!) The assisted publishing company I initially went to was very exciting. I was starting a new career with my writing, but soon discovered the impact of disappointment with this not-as-good-as-I-thought company.
Sea Witch was published. I had not been sent proof copies, so the first time I saw it in print was at my book launch. And I was horrified to discover that the font was printed in Comic Sans, with the opening paragraph centred, not fully justified. I used to write my drafts in Comic Sans (I now use Calibri or Palantino) but it never occurred to me that this company would print the book exactly as I had submitted the finished file. Mainstream publishers typeset to their house style, and edit, copy-edit and proof read. So that was a bit of a shock, although being print-on-demand, I soon had this corrected. My covers, then, were very amateur, rather typical bland self-published.
I was very lucky to eventually meet Cathy Helms of www.avalongraphics.org who now designs not only my UK covers, but provides all my graphics for my website and marketing material. To cut a long, tedious story short, that company had dedicated staff, but the Managing Director was not all he was cracked up to be. He rarely paid his printers, so books were not available. Royalties, rent, staff, were not paid. The company went broke.
Fortunately – and here plays the part of luck again – I had already met with Helen Hart of SilverWood Books Ltd, based in Bristol UK who describe themselves accurately as “Professional publishing for the self-funding author.” When the bad company went belly-up, I went straight to Silverwood. My UK books are now of stunning quality, in fact I think overall, they are produced better than my North American editions, which are mainstream with a big US company. However, a bit of trumpet tootling here: one of my US novels hit the bestseller USA Today list, a fact I am very proud of. So maybe I have managed to climb as high as three-quarters up that ladder?
How do you get/stay in creative mode?
This is harder as an indie writer, as you have to motivate yourself. There is no publisher or agent breathing down your neck with a looming deadline. When I do write, nothing can distract me, but the hardest part of writing? That’s putting your bum on the chair and getting on with it!
How do you prioritise?
Er, I don’t. I do try, but it never works. I keep telling myself to answer e-mails, post on Facebook and Twitter and put up an article on my blog before morning coffee break, then settle to work, but somehow there are always so many interesting people out there to communicate with, or another article that needs to be written…. I am editing this at 7.15 pm on a Saturday!
When I can focus….when….LOL ! In truth, we moved house last year from London to Devon and much of my time in the interim has been settling in then being occupied with the farm (we have horses and recently hens.) Fencing had to be done, new people to meet in the village … emergency call-out for the vet… Where does the time go! But, the fifth voyage of the Sea Witch is in my head. I have Jesamiah’s next exciting adventure all mapped out. All I need to do is sit down long enough to write it!
What's the highlight of being an author-publisher for you?
Meeting such lovely people on line and in reality. I have so many fabulous readers and friends around the world now. That is the icing on the cake.
What's your top tip for other indie authors?
Produce your book to a professional quality. Yes, it costs money to do so, but if your book is worth publishing, then it is worth publishing correctly. Get a professional editor. Make sure the book is printed to look like a mainstream book.
I am the UK Indie Review Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society. It amazes me how many novels I have to reject because they are riddled with typos or have the text left-justified (with a rugged right-hand margin) or with paragraphs double or 1.5 spaced. Look at mainstream books, study how they are laid out – your book should equal them in appearance, if they don’t you are not going to be taken seriously as an author, no matter how good your writing skill.
In partnership with her editor, Jo Field, Helen has published an extensive collection of her top tips in her new paperback, Discovering the Diamond, also available as an e-book, offering excellent advice on how to make your book the best it can be. It's now available from good bookshops and online retailers around the world.