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Essay

Unstopping the bottle

A self-publishing experiment comes to fruition

Frank Ryan 16 February 2008

www.lablit.com/article/354

Frank P. Ryan

London editors presume that the public is not interested in reading about flesh-and-blood scientists in novels based on real scientific themes

This past Friday, February 15, 2008, I self-published my novel, The Doomsday Genie. There was no celebratory bottle of champagne on my doorstep – but that’s only happened once in my career, though my books have been published by eight or more of the leading publishers in the UK, US and Australia. Those same books have taken the front cover of the New York Times or Washington Post book reviews not just once but three times. One of my books was the subject of World in Action and Horizon television programs on the same day. I’ve now had another book, written after Doomsday Genie, already accepted by the publishing establishment. So I’m not carrying any chips on my shoulder. But it’s puzzling all the same that I have been put through the hassle of publishing this book myself.

Maybe this particular book just doesn’t work? A lot of authors produce a bummer every now and then. However, I don’t think so. On the contrary, I believe it is one of the most powerful books I have written. What’s more, I’m not the only one who thinks so. When London publishers sent Doomsday Genie to their readers for an opinion, the readers extolled it. Even the editors themselves freely confessed that colleagues within their publishing houses wrote eulogies about it. So what’s the problem? The Doomsday Genie is a thriller based on a major scientific theme – what would happen if there were a bioterrorist attack on America – and I make no apology for the fact it contains flesh-and-blood scientists, as opposed to Dr Strangeloves, and real as opposed to futuristic science in the fiction.

The Doomsday Genie

My novel is set in America, written in American English and aimed, primarily, at an American market. Unfortunately, the London reaction precluded its being sent for consideration to US publishers for whom it was intended, and who might have taken a different perspective. All this because the London editors presume that the public is not interested in reading about flesh-and-blood scientists in a novel based on a real scientific theme.

Many of you will know about this already since, last year, I wrote a running blog for LabLit.com entitled The Dragon in the Stone – the dragon being a metaphor for science trapped within the prejudice of the arts-educated literary establishment. I shall conclude, in this final installment, by outlining what the few weeks leading up to publication have been like.

I advertised the book online well in advance, preparing an e-book, which was offered for sale on fprbooks.com. This surprised everybody, including myself, by selling almost 300 copies prior to print publication. I had planned a small print-on-demand (POD) run, aimed at a marketing exercise, but this also began to sell in unusual numbers through direct website orders, so the POD took on a life of its own, to end up as the equivalent of a traditional print run. All of this before ever I began the normal approach to the booksellers here in the UK.

Hey, baby – smokin’!

Since my small press outfit, Swift, had long abandoned our excellent sales force and distributor (you don’t need these for the sale of back numbers), I had to engage the help of two of the original directors, and between us we mailed some 500+ flyers to booksellers, personally addressing the managers, and focusing on every outfit that listed novels, thrillers and science fiction.

How did we know which booksellers to address? There’s a handy publication: The 2007/8 Directory of Booksellers Association Members, which anybody can buy from the Booksellers Association. A must for UK-based self-publishers, as for all UK publishers, unfortunately it’s not available as a convenient electronic format from where you could take the names and addresses. You just have to work like hell and type them all in.

We mailed a different flyer, with a courtesy book, to central buyers, such as Waterstones, Blackwells, Amazon, Bertrams and Gardners.

At the same time we sent books, all personally addressed (aided by phone calls to switchboards since they constantly change addresses and personnel), to the review editors of the national newspapers, together with key magazines, including New Scientist and Nature; and, since The Doomsday Genie is already being interpreted as hard-edged science fiction, to Interzone, SFX, and Locus. We eschewed regional newspapers, other than locals, since past experience has shown it to be a waste of effort.

We worked on a few additional marketing strategies, though I am not going to tell you about these – it’s our secret. However, I would strongly recommend How to Market Books, by Alison Baverstock, the book used to train professionals in the publishing trade. At the stage of going to print, we hired a press cutting agency (IPCB) to look out for reviews over the coming two months.

I have to admit that even with my experience in running a small press outfit over sixteen years, I learnt a few new tricks from going through the ropes again. I was critical of the commerciality of PODs (the bright shining hope of all prospective self-publishers) in my blog, since it is impossible for a self-publishing author to sell PODs to central buyers at a profit. It’s all down to the basic mathematics: the cover price of The Doomsday Genie is £7.99 and central buyers ask for between 50% and 55% discounts. POD production costs amount to roughly £5 – and add to this your packaging and mailing costs. No way is that profitable with central buyers!

But I discovered two ways in which one can make a POD book more profitable. If you take on a larger print run you will obtain substantial discounts, which makes it profitable to sell books to individual booksellers or direct to readers. Even so, you still cannot break the central buyers' barrier of 50% to 55% discounts. But there is also a way around this. If you engage a major organization such as Lightning Source to print your POD, not only will they force a much better discount out of central buyers – enough to make it profitable for you – but, globally, they will carry the book into outlets that you, and most small press publishers, cannot reach.

When, in April last year, I first donned armor and hefted my Fir Bolg double edged battleaxe, I suggested that other prospective self-publishers trust a seasoned gladiator to show you the way. I have kept my promise. Of course I don’t anticipate overnight success. It’s going to be a long, hard slog. But, you know, in the end, no matter what the route to publication, public reaction allied to the quality of your book will decide whether your dragon soars or ends up adding its bleached remains to the beach of bones. But one thing’s for sure – your dragon will never have the chance to soar if it remains forever locked within its stony prison.

Maybe one or two of you – and a certain supercilious book dedicated to bullshit – will raise a glass with me and share the blessed toast. To science in fiction!

Sléinte!

Related information

Support the cause and buy the The Doomsday Genie (Swift Publishers, 2008, ISBN 978-1-874082-42-2) from Amazon.