In my ongoing little odysseys into the world of publishing – and self-publishing in particular – I thought it would make sense to include a representative from one of those publishers who offer comprehensive publishing packages to aspiring authors. It is my belief that these publishers have a huge impact on how self-published book are perceived, by (hopefully) offering a quality look and feel to the finished product. The question, of course, is how much responsibility these publishers should take for the content…
I have invited Helen Hart from SilverWood Books to offer her opinions on these issues. I am sure she will offer quite some interesting opinions! So, dear Helen, welcome to Stolen Moments! I hope this brief visit with me hasn’t entirely crashed your busy diary, what with participation in conferences, open day events and what not – and just to ensure you sit down and relax for a while, how about a cup of tea? Or maybe one of my re-energising super smoothies with apple, raspberries, ginger, lime and mint?
Thank you for having me, Anna. And I’m delighted to accept a smoothie. Ginger and lime sounds refreshing and is sure to give me a boost!
Right; now that I’ve ensured you won’t die of thirst (I probably need to offer you a glass of water as well – tea and smoothies can be dehydrating), I’d like to start by asking you why you decided to start SilverWood Books.
A good question. I started SilverWood back in early 2007. A fellow writer had decided to make a foray into self-publishing. Sadly she used a company who let her down, and she suggested that I help her re-publish her book to a higher standard. I wasn’t keen at first as I thought, “I’m a writer, not a publisher”. But she persuaded me and actually I quickly found that I loved publishing even more than I loved writing. Making books and working with writers is much nicer than doing the writing myself. My writing friend and I did a good job together and produced a handsome book. Soon another writer asked me to work with her…and before long it snowballed and so SilverWood Books was born.
By now, you seem to have quite a thriving business up and running, but I’d suppose there were moments when you thought “Oh my God! What am I doing?” What motivated you to keep at it when things were really tough?
I’m very lucky because I genuinely love what I do. The company is growing and my small but specialist team of publishing assistants is a vital part of that. We’re committed to what we do, and to the authors we work with, and we also try to have fun each working day.
You are a successful author in your own right. Do you think this helps you in your role as a publisher? Is there a particular “writer’s POV” that you can apply at need?
Definitely. My writing career is one of the foundations on which SilverWood is built. Having worked as a professional writer for over a decade, I appreciate the writing process as well as the heart and soul that every writer pours into their work. The relationship between a writer and their publisher is an important one. It’s essential for a writer to feel that their publisher understands them and their aims for their book, and is there to offer support and nurturing throughout their career. That’s why, at SilverWood, we put so much emphasis on the relationships we build with our authors.
Self-publishing has taken off markedly in the last few years. Where do you see this development going in terms of sold books? At what point – if ever – will the majority of fiction sales be self-published rather than traditionally published?
I think we’re moving rapidly towards that. Some of our bestselling authors are outselling in a month what many, many trade published authors sell in a year. There’s been a radical shift in publishing within the past 18 months. It’s clear that self-publishing is no longer the poor cousin of trade publishing but a good first choice that allows the author flexibility and creativity. Not to mention control over their own work.
One of the more far-reaching consequences of self-publishing is that the traditional publishing business model comes under threat. With a lot of “cheap” books on the market – especially valid for e-books – prices are generally being pushed downwards, thereby reducing overall profitability on books. What will be the consequences of this, do you think? Will traditional publishing retreat to focus on “safe bets” only, whereby the newbie authors have no choice but to go for self-publishing?
I think that scenario is already upon us and has been for some time. However, I don’t think it’s that newbie authors have ‘no choice’. They have the ultimate choice – and the freedom to control their own books and professional platform.
From a reader’s perspective, what benefits does the increase in self-publishing bring?
A vibrant library of books and greater choice. As you mentioned in the previous question, some areas of publishing have chosen to play safe and produce books that they know are going to succeed (because something similar succeeded the previous year…think ‘Fifty Shades’ and all the similar titles that flooded the market in the aftermath of that success). If writers have the choice and freedom to publish what they want, it allows them to experiment and be creative. Admittedly those experiments won’t always work, and there will be a considerable number of books of what might politely be termed ‘variable quality’. However it’s relatively easy for us as readers to sample books and check out the professionalism of editing, proofreading and presentation. Thus the risk of paying for a poor quality book is fairly low. Also, many ebook retailers will allow returns and refunds within a set period of time.
Likewise, from a reader’s perspective, what are the downsides with buying a self-published book?
If the reader is unwary or undiscerning then they might end up buying something that’s not that good. But then a lot of trade books aren’t that good, either. A ‘good’ book is down to personal taste. Look at how Rosamund Lupton’s ‘Sister’ divided readers with vehemently “I hated it” one star reviews alongside delighted “I loved it” five star reviews. You’d be forgiven for thinking people hadn’t read the same book. (For the record, I didn’t rate it very highly.)
How much do the popularity of the e-book and the growth of self-pub go hand in hand?
They’re inextricably linked nowadays, although I’d say that self-publishing was already thriving before e-books became popular. It’s interesting to see that statistics show that although e-books might outsell print books, it’s the author who offers both and gives their reader a choice who sells four times as many as the author who releases only in e-book format. A recent survey found that 70% of Americans prefer print books…and that apparently only 4% of the population regularly use an e-reading device. That’s quite sobering for anyone who’s decided to offer their book as ebook-only.
There are a number of self-publishing providers out there who offer excellent comprehensive services to aspiring authors. Do you think that over time these providers will become far more selective as to what they actually choose to publish under their imprint, i.e. will self-publishing providers – in the interest of quality & readability – turn away prospective customers because they don’t quite meet the required standards?
I can’t speak for others but that’s definitely what we’re doing at SilverWood. We have two criteria: books for family and friends (where we are less selective and simply work hard with the author to make their book the best it can be as a family legacy) and books for commercial sale (where we help authors apply the same rigorous pre-press processes as a trade publisher would). If we feel an author isn’t ready for publication and their work should undergo further development, then we’ll give them as much sensitive feedback and information as we can. Some authors are very professional. They go away and do the work, resubmitting an improved manuscript later. Sadly, others decide we’re wrong and some fall into the arms of what used to be called ‘the vanity press’ where they pay a lot of money to publish something that’s only likely to sell a few copies. That’s a shame and at SilverWood we always feel quite sad when that happens. However we’ve learned that we can’t help everyone – and actually with ‘freedom to publish’ comes the ultimate freedom, which is to publish anything you like whether it’s ‘good’ or not. What was that phrase…’Publish and be damned’? I guess it has a different meaning now!
There are many self-pub authors out there who scoff at the notion of assissted publishing, saying that such outfits mainly exist to make money off the weaker souls among the aspiring writers (which would, in that case, include me. Except that I’m not weak…). What would be your comments?
Sadly it’s ignorance, and also a sweeping generalisation. There are sharks out there, but there are also good companies like ours operating with integrity and bringing very high standards.
(I also asked Helen to expound on the pros and cons of assisted publishing and “pure” self-publishing, but the reply became so lengthy it requires a post of its own, so Helen will be back at a later date to give her view on this – and I think I’ll invite some fellow authors along to give their view as well. I can imagine you are all more or less jumping up and down at the thought of this future post, right?)
Let us assume someone sends you a manuscript to read. It’s a great read (okay, yes a couple of minor spelling mistakes) and the writer wants your advice whether to submit to an agent/publisher or go it on their own with you. What would you say?
I would not only encourage them to try a publisher or literary agent, I’d offer to put them in contact with some. That’s because there’s one thing that self-publishing can’t do (yet) and that’s to place a copy (or three, or four) of a self-published book into the majority of bookstores in the country. We’re working on it, and making good inroads into showing that SilverWood titles are every bit as well-produced as trade published books (hence our relationship with Foyles in Bristol). However it’s hard work to do that on a national scale, and it needs the kind of big budget that self-publishers don’t tend to have at their disposal (including the ability to finance returned stock). So for that reason, if a writer wants to see their book in the majority of bricks and mortar bookshops, then a trade deal still has the edge.
Finally, let us assume you’ve volunteered to go to Mars to found a colony there. Unfortunately, baggage limits are severely restricted, and you are only allowed three books (which begs the question WHY on earth you’ve volunteered – must be the pioneer in you, right?) Which three books would you take along on this very, very, very long journey – and why?
What an amazing and original question. And challenging too. Only three…? I can almost feel the pain of separation from my wonderful books… Oh okay then. Three. ‘The Magus’ by John Fowles because I find something different in it every time I read it. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ because I love everything by Defoe and the story would make me feel there’s hope even if I’m on Mars. And finally, ‘War and Peace’ because I started the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation a few years ago and didn’t get very far. Maybe being on Mars will give me time to read it – and finish it!
Ha! One needs plenty of time to finish “War and Peace” and an amazing memory for names and patronyms! I’m with you on “The Magus” – an intellectual challenge that poses as a great read. Not that these books would serve to keep you occupied all the way to Mars, which begs the question, would you ever consider signing up as a Mars colonist?
Do you know, I don’t think I would. I’d miss home comforts, and family, too much!
Right; that sort of concludes things for today. Thank you so much for stopping by,Helen, it has been quite the pleasure to have you here with me!