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Bookish. Publisher at Louise Walters Books. Reader, writer, and editor. Working class gal.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Three years of indie publishing: the view from here

Hello! My first blogpost in ages... but I say that every time I blog, so... y'know... I am quite busy! To make up for it, this is a long post. Maybe grab a coffee... 

Three years ago, on 19th September 2017, I announced I was going to be a bona fide indie press: Louise Walters Books. I'd been working towards this for months, behind the scenes, and had self-published my third novel, The Road to California, as a trial run. I was excited, scared, and looking forward to the big adventure. A few months into running my press I signed my first author, Laura Laakso, for her debut novel Fallible Justice, the first book in her paranormal crime series, Wilde Investigations. Other writers followed and my aim to publish four books per year (one per season) was in full swing. 

Three years down the line, I'm flat out exhausted; I have made mistakes, faced numerous rejections (it's not only writers who get repeatedly rejected in the crazy world of publishing!) and wept many tears: tears of frustration, disappointment, desperation, and sometimes, joy. First let's talk about the disappointments, shall we? Nobody really does... here goes... all very much in the spirit of my understanding that nobody owes me anything. This is simply my reality... 

Ebook sales. Mine are consistently low. They are increasing as I produce more books (my ninth title is out in November, Cath Barton's In the Sweep of the Bay) and Laura's series has done increasingly well this year off the back of a Bookbub promotion in June... but generally, I've been disappointed not to sell more. I have always kept the price of my ebooks low (currently they are £2.50 on all platforms). Other publishers sell oodles of ebooks (I look at sales figures in The Bookseller and regularly see authors and publishers and agents on Twitter celebrating (rightly) their "nth" sale of ebooks...) but my figures are nowhere near these levels. I've concluded it's commercial fiction which does well in ebook... my aim at LWB has been to publish books at the literary end of the spectrum, regardless of genre. And we are repeatedly told that literary fiction doesn't sell... 

Another disappointment has been the lack of sales through bookshops. When I started LWB I (rather naively, it turns out) imagined indie bookshops and indie publishers had a mutually supportive, symbiotic relationship. It would make sense, wouldn't it? Indies supporting each other? Waterstones don't carry my books (yet) as core stock, and I do understand that; there are far too many books published and Waterstones can't possibly stock them all any more than indie stores can. So while it's frustrating for me, I do get it. What I would love to see (and actually, need) is more indie bookshops stocking my titles. I am signed up with Gardners, the industry's main (and now only, after the demise of Bertrams) book wholesaler. All my books are available through them; and I clearly state my trading terms on my website, as I can also (and do) deal directly with indie bookshops. I suspect LWB just isn't on enough radars yet, and that's something I can keep working on (gotta put a positive spin on the disappointments, right?) 

There are some brilliant supportive indie bookshops who do carry some or all of my titles, and I am immensely grateful to them. But I need more, just like I need more ebook sales. There is no getting away from that. I am planning my first LWB catalogue, so I hope that will make a difference. I'm planning to send it to all UK indie bookshops, probably in early 2021. The trouble with books is the profit margin is tiny, and I've sold books at a loss, which means publishing on my small scale is not a sustainable "business model". But of course that isn't the reason I'm doing all of this. I'm a publisher because I love reading, and I love reading intelligent books, by writers of clear and genuine talent; and I know many other readers do too. So business model be damned. I'm in it for the passion. But I need sales too, or I'm not in it at all. See the problem here?

I've yet to secure a translation rights deal for any of my books. That has been quite a blow. I remain hopeful... I know my books would translate well. The frustration is real. (Rejection, you see, I get it all the time!) I have landed some audio and large print deals, and that is very good news for me and my authors. 

The lack of press reviews is galling, although I do know most books from any publishers, big or small, don't get reviewed. I nevertheless try very hard. I have spent hours tracking down emails, finding reviewers on Twitter, emailing people, offering copies of my books. Mostly I hear nothing back, or I get a polite no thank you (which is much better than being ignored). This is where I think my lack of contacts comes into play. I'm not posh, middle-class, I don't have old school friends to open doors for me. I don't have any feet in any of these middle-class doors and that has been, I've no doubt, detrimental to my authors. So that's where I feel at my worst, really. It's all very well to edit and produce a high quality book but it's to little avail if I can't get them reviewed, stocked in shops, or long-listed in a prize or two.

OK, that's quite enough of the disappointments. (No need to mention I am skint, is there? I have sunk almost all my savings into my publishing and I'm yet to break even on any of my books... but I think that might be fairly typical in indie publishing... Oh, and the loneliness... nobody talks about the loneliness of indie publishing. I've never been more lonely in my life...) 

But now I want to talk about the good stuff, of which there is plenty. First, my Subscribers!

Sixty-seven people have taken out either a physical or digital subscription. I can't thank them enough for their support and belief in my authors and their books. It has made a real difference to my finances and to my morale. And the website orders are brilliant, I'm immensely cheered every time one of these pops into my inbox... thanks to each and every person who has ordered anything from my website bookshop. You are keeping me afloat in a real, measurable way.  

I regard each and every sale as a mini-victory; a validation that I'm doing something good at LWB and that readers want it. 

And book bloggers, you are amazing in your enthusiasm and you've reviewed my titles so warmly and positively. You have been integral to getting my books on radars and I thank you all sincerely for all that you do for books, and mine in particular!  

Working with my talented team of writers and freelance helpers has been fantastic. I've learned so much about editing and publishing over the last three years. It's been brilliant. All seven of my authors have talent in bucket loads. It's an absolute joy to work on writing of the calibre they produce and I couldn't be a prouder publisher. The thrill of finding each of these writers makes up for a lot of the disappointments. They deserve more sales, of course, they should have got more reviews, of course, they should have been on prize long lists, absolutely of course. But they haven't, yet, and while I frequently feel I've failed my authors, I don't think I have, really. I've done my best for them with limited funds in a very overcrowded marketplace... I'm a meticulous editor, I hope, and I work my authors hard on their books. 

The mistakes: trying to publish four books a year! It's way too many for one person. The workload is immense even with one book, let alone four. And while my future as a publisher is uncertain, and I am going to be taking a break in 2021-2022, I have made one decision for the future, should I continue to publish: two books per year maximum! That way I may hang on to my sanity... The hours I have put in, and still do, has affected my family, my relationships, my mental health. Two books per year will restore some balance... that's the plan...

Financially, I live on my savings (now almost all gone) and my editorial work, which I do alongside my publishing. I can, and often do, earn more money from one editorial report than I sometimes make on all sales of my titles in a month. So it's a no-brainer. In reality, my freelance editorial work is my day job, my actual work; publishing is an expensive hobby that I can't sustain forever unless sales pick up. It's that simple, that sad, really. 

I have four more books to publish, the last one in May 2021. All four are brilliant novels, and all quite different... 

After that, I'm going to take a few months off, probably a year or so, and figure out how to proceed. I have several options, all of which I will consider: going back to my own writing (The only certainty. Got to write again); setting up an ebook-only imprint for commercial fiction (there is money in that, but is it true to LWB? Does that even matter?); give up publishing entirely (and get my life back!); set up as a "hybrid" publisher, where I help writers to publish their books, but the author pays me for my services... and I'm even considering switching to being an agent... all of these are options, and I could do a combination of these.  

Would I have set up LWB in 2017 if I'd been able gaze into a crystal ball? What do you think?*   

I'm jaded. The booktrade is the toughest, strangest, cruellest industry. It's resistant to change, slow to change, and it's resistant to indie authors and indie publishers for no fathomable reason. It's an industry at odds with itself. Writers, agents, publishers, and booksellers, all have different needs and want different things from this industry, and the conflict of interest is tough to navigate. So on Twitter I've been criticised for directing people to my titles on Amazon by an indie bookseller who as far as I know doesn't stock my titles. That's the conflict, right there, the downright ridiculousness of the industry and how it works (or doesn't work). But... Books, innit. We all love books regardless of our place in this crazy book world. 

For now, onwards, and I'll be around for a while yet, promoting the heck out of my seven authors and their remarkable novels. It will be nice to have the time in 2021 and 2022 to promote the books without the pressure of line editing, endless proofreading (my least favourite job!) and without the worry of the expense of bringing out any further books. Next year I will have twelve titles out, and they will be in my catalogue, nice and glossy, with those fantastic covers, for readers, booksellers, librarians, and reviewers to discover them. 

And in case you might like to learn more about my indie press, or buy a book, you can head over to my website where all my published-to-date books are available to buy now in print and digital; and my upcoming books are available for pre-order, in print and digital. All my titles are also available at internet retailers, and can be ordered through any high street bookshop, whether that be Waterstones, Foyles, Blackwells, or your local independent.  

Thank you to all who have supported me and my authors over the last three years. It means so much, you'll never know quite how much... 

Louise x

*PS, the answer to the crystal ball question? No. I may be passionate, but I'm not stupid! 

   (Good job there is no crystal ball...)