A tribute to the self-publishing community

My venture into indie authorship has been an up and down road. The strange peace of the first lockdown spring. Long, thoughtful walks by the river watching nature, dreaming up characters, musing over plot lines, imaginary conversations in my head. Sideways looks from other walkers wondering who the strange person was laughing to herself and muttering into her phone. Then back to the laptop tapping away, weaving plot lines in and out like macramé, feeling a sense of control that I lack in real life.

The perils and wonders of basing Habitat Man on real-life characters and projects. Shuffling together the most engaging aspects of the most interesting people I’ve come across, sprinkling in nature bits among the romance. The exhilaration and absorption of creation, utterly self-contained, needing nothing to entertain me except the page I’m filling with the developing story.

The downs – that moment when you send work off and belatedly realise it wasn’t good enough and wishing you could get it back and send the rewrite. The painful process of learning the craft, of veering from self-doubt to ridiculous optimism in the space of a minute, learning to accept constructive feedback with grace. Reading every book I can find on writing craft – harder than I’d realised. Rewriting over and over again.

Time ticking. As a sustainability academic, I’m painfully aware of the climate and biodiversity crisis and my motivation for writing Habitat Man was to share green solutions with a mainstream audience through fiction. I was desperate to get the book out fast, which is why I’d decided to go independent. I didn’t have time to wait while my manuscript lay on agents’ desks for months unread.

I put away the books on craft and absorbed advice on editing, formatting, covers, distribution from every quarter – podcasts, blogs, Facebook forums, ALLi guides. I sign up to every list and my email inbox becomes overwhelming. I panic when I realise I should have booked in editors, cover designers and typesetters months in advance. My partner Chris cautioned me to slow down, that one eco-themed rom-com can’t save the planet. But there’s another reason I don’t tell him. I’m rushing to get the book published before mum dies.

I don’t quite make it. Against the darkness of the loss, the exhilaration of the book launch comes in sharp relief. The buzz, the congratulations, hearing my words come to life as other people read their favourite bits. Realising I need an audio book for sure. Caught in a whirl of learning and activity. I listen intently to ALLi’s self-publishing podcasts. Designing websites, social media, email lists, blogging, promotions, desperately seeking reviews. One thing I’m learning is that if you do nothing, then nothing happens, so I slog on with the marketing because what’s the point of spending two years writing a book if no one reads it? I have sequels planned, stories piling up in my head, a prequel idea, but when will I ever get time to write them? A daydream flickers in my mind of a rose-covered cottage and me as a full time author – one with a publishing company and agent and all I have to do is write. Oh yes please.

There’s Orna Ross’s warm reassuring voice on the ALLi podcast saying ‘don’t worry, it’s always hard at first, things will get easier I promise.’ I struggle with everything and tap into the ALLi Facebook group with my questions and am astonished how quick they are to help.

Some things you have to learn the hard way. Awkward lessons such as the puppyish eagerness of offering to read the books of other self-published authors and realising it’s just not your cup of tea and then avoiding them in case they ask what you thought. Then even worse, wondering why someone is suddenly avoiding you!

Shockingly, almost none of my family or close friends have read my book. I’ve had lovely reviews from people I’ve never met, but my nearest and dearest – not a sausage. They turned up in force for the book launch and helped make it a real party, but none of them can write a review as none of them have read it. I listened with interest to Kat Caldwell’s Lipstick & Pencils podcast, ‘who are you writing for’ where she discussed how concern about readers’ reactions can be a barrier. Had I held back on sex scenes imagining my family reading it perhaps? I needn’t have worried.

Now I’m discovering a brand new community – it shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it is – the reading community – strangers who have read my book. Advice I’d heard on podcasts and brushed off months ago is suddenly relevant. For example, that it’s easier to market a book that is genre specific – where you can point to other similar books and say ‘mine is like that’. But my favourite books don’t fit into a clear genre. I love Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Mark Haddon’s books and Where the Crawdad’s Sing and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and none of them are easy to categorise. Habitat Man is midway between eco-themed rom-com and literary fiction with a dash of mystery. My book has a body in the garden, and of course that’s a hook – but it can backfire if your readers expect a thriller or crime procedural. I have a romance too, but Habitat Man isn’t genre romance. This makes it tricky to write a blurb that hooks but doesn’t mislead and is an issue I still haven’t resolved. Still, as reviews mount up on Amazon, I’m finding that my readers do that for me. One review I humbly acknowledge is better written than my book in its poetic metaphors, wit and concision.

Buoyed up by reader feedback, I struggle on, balancing work, life, marketing, and now the audio book is out. I’m fully plugged into the indie community and instead of tuning into birdsong while walking the dogs, I listen avidly to the ALLi podcasts, The Creative Penn, Six Figure Authors etc. trying to understood how Facebook advertising works, whether to go wide or not, how to promote a book promotion. I should market the audio book now it’s done, but I just don’t have the time. The ceiling is falling down and I must get onto a plasterer. The probate paperwork needs sorting, my work email inbox torments me. I start listening to the podcasts on time management rather than the podcasts on publishing. I ask myself when was the last time I felt joy as an author?

I take to a candlelit bath and dream. I’m sitting in a rose-covered cottage in the country in my own personal writing space looking out over the garden. There’s a smell of baking bread for some reason. Any time I need inspiration I step outside and look up at the swifts swirling in the blue sky, hear the frogs croaking in the pond and gaze out at the grand oak in the field beyond and salute a passing magpie. I return refreshed to my desk, tapping as fast as my fingers allow, telling all the stories of my characters that have been mounting up over the last year. I’m interrupted by a phone call from my personal marketing person employed by a top notch publisher beseeching me to be interviewed by the Guardian Literary Correspondent. ‘Oh alright,’ I say, ‘schedule it with my secretary.’ He tentatively asks if I’d find time to be guest author on Radio 4’s Book Club. I sigh and ask when I’ll ever find time to write at this rate, but secretly I’m delighted. Sod it, I daydream myself a television guest spot on Between the Covers. My own personal marketing agent has appeared in the flesh at my door with some coffee and freshly baked cake as a thank you for deigning to give up precious writing time to sell my books. He’s handsome and charming – why not? He has many clients but I’m his favourite. He worships me and my work. I make him gay so Chris isn’t threatened by our mutual adoration. Birds sing, bread is baked, I write and it’s all lovely. I recline in my bath and add some more hot water and consider whether I should after all approach some agents and publishing houses.

But do I have time to craft cover letters and send them off? Even if they respond positively, the reality is that publishing is a business – do I want to be a product? After all, he who pays the paper calls the tune. I remember the conversation I had with a traditionally published author at a writing retreat whose publisher had made her remove the crime from her romance as it crossed genre, and the whole book had fallen apart. Free editing, formatting, printing and marketing I’d love, but someone telling me what to write? No thanks. I’m not writing to maximise profit, I’m writing to entertain and inform, to make a difference in the world. I pull the plug and pull myself together and bolstered by Orna Ross’s warm reassurance and Joanna Penn’s cheery empathy and the ALLi Facebook forum I bumble along.

My day job becomes demanding and I berate myself for still not having sorted out a reader magnet and wonder if I’ll ever get time to write the prequels and sequels in my head. Then I remember Orna promising that it gets easier and the first time is the hardest. I realise I have a few firsts under my belt. I’ve done my first book blog tour – six months ago I didn’t know what a blog tour was. I’ve done my first Kindle Countdown Deal and used a few book promotion sites. I’ve done several MailChimp newsletters and for the first time I find myself responding to someone else’s query on the ALLi Facebook forum.

I listen to an ALLi podcast where Orna admits she takes a long time to write a novel and Joanna Penn confesses that she still hasn’t got the hang of Facebook ads. I forgive myself for not having written the prequel or sequel yet. Then a podcast about the possibilities of Kindle Vella excites me and I wonder about serialising my sequel. I suddenly love that this will be my choice and that there will be so many like-minded people to share their advice and experiences with me. I realise that ultimately what I’ve found here is a community. So, despite the fact that I feel like I’ve been in fire-fighting mode for the last six months balancing job, marketing, writing and life, I leave my mounting inbox for later and start writing this blog to say thank you.

I’ve met many of you via Facebook, several guesting on podcasts and some by phone or Zoom, but it is this self-publishing community that crosses national borders who understand what I’m going through, more so even than my closest family and friends. I’ve been astounded and grateful for the generosity of spirit shown by those who have given their precious time to offer advice and encouragement. I’ve had many exhilarating moments – seeing my book in print, the book launch, the first positive reviews from strangers. But it has been the steady support from the indie community that has kept me going through the darker days of self-doubt and exhaustion. Claire Wingfield who held my hand through so much of the process – more than just a cover designer and typesetter. Helen Baggott my copy editor, always quick to come back with an answer to queries long after the copy editing was done. Orna Ross, who by setting up ALLi, provided such a great resource for self-publishing authors and more than that, is now sponsoring the Green Stories writing competitions I’ve been running since 2018. No longer am I scrabbling month to month for scraps of sponsorship. Orna is in it for the long term and we’ve tailored it to provide recognition and mentorship for indie authors.

The Green Stories competitions are also a gateway into a community of like-minded writers. It was Anna Holmes, a Green Stories winner, who introduced me to Lauren James and the Climate Fiction Writers League. I’m currently writing a chapter, Climate Fiction to Inspire Green Actions: Tales from Three Authors with Lauren and also Jeremy Brown who created the superhero comics about the climate crisis – The Renegades: Defenders of the Planet. Their journeys aren’t so different to my own. Judith Stutchbury, another competition winner with her delightful children’s’ screenplay Hatch, sent me a photo of her holding Habitat Man and has been a lovely contact all the way over in Australia. I chatted yesterday to Ann Palmer from the Outer Hebrides who got in touch to tell me about her eco-Santa project, which I loved, and will definitely help to promote via the Green Stories platform. There’s David Fell, who won the 2020 Green Stories novel prize with his book Visco. I really hope he’ll take advantage of the free manuscript appraisal to rewrite and we can help him get it into print. It would make a great TV series. In fact so would Habitat Man and didn’t I hear a podcast recently about pitching books for screen? Bit by bit I’m finding my tribe. I think it’s a growing tribe and I dream that one day we might have own genre category of positive eco-themed fiction.

That’s the wonderful thing about the self-publishing world, you can curate your own mini community among the broader network of writers all going through the stages of creation, production and marketing. All with their own story but sharing similar struggles and supporting each other. Which brings me back to my main purpose – thank you self-publishing community and to all those I mentioned. Thanks to the podcasters who had me on as a guest, to those on ALLi’s Facebook forum for answering my endless queries, to Helen and Claire the professionals who gave me so much of their time. Thanks to Orna for her work with ALLi and for sponsoring the Green Stories competitions, to fellow writers I’ve met at events and workshops, published and aspiring, for their encouragement. I’ve found a community where I belong. Thank you all for getting me to the stage where I’m dreaming again.