Tuesday 22 October 2019

50 Shades and the new queens of self-publishing

After the success of the EL James erotic novels, middle-aged women are rushing into print.

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey
Author Lydia Little
Self-published author Marisa Mackle. Pic. Anthony Woods.
Mummy porn: EL James.

Deirdre Reynolds

Once seen as a last resort for failed authors, there was another major boost for self-publishing this week.

New academic research has shown that, far from the stereotype of the eccentric hobbyist scribbling away in the garden shed, most self-published authors are now well-educated professionals in their 40s and 50s.

As the Fifty Shades of Grey effect continues, with a movie version of the bonkbuster starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson on its way to cinemas here, more and more middle-aged women, in particular, are following in the footsteps of EL James by putting pen to paper and publishing the resulting manuscript themselves, it found.

Nearly two-thirds of all self-publishers are aged 41 to 60, according to the research by Alison Baverstock, an associate professor in publishing at Kingston University; the vast majority - 65pc - are women, and 44pc have a higher degree.

Flogging more than 100 million books worldwide, James, said Baverstock, is proof self-publishers "really know their audiences", and that traditional publishers "are not necessarily in touch with popular taste".

Although her debut novel, K-Girls, set in Kylemore Abbey girls' boarding school, couldn't be more different from Fifty Shades, self-published author Lydia Little says she'd love to turn writing into a full-time career just like James.

"Writing K-Girls got me through my midlife crisis," jokes mum-of-two Lydia from Cork. "Some people run marathons, some people climb Everest - I wrote a book.

"Growing up, I always loved writing," she says. "I just didn't know I was an author. Then, after joining a local writing club six years ago, I realised I had a story to tell."

Despite being approached by two well-known Irish publishers about her first young adult fiction novel, Lydia decided to release the title online through Kindle Direct Publishing, followed by a print edition last year.

"Basically I got impatient with trying to publish it the traditional way," explains the 43-year-old. "I went from trying for a year and a half to get it published to becoming a published author overnight.

"I'm a bit of a Luddite, so I presumed wrongly it would be incredibly difficult - but it was so easy. I just wrote my book in [Microsoft] Word format, created an Amazon account and literally uploaded my file.

"It doesn't cost anything, and you get between 35pc and 75pc [of sales] depending on the region.

"Seeing my book in a shop window in Cork for the first time was amazing," adds Lydia, who's just finished the second book in her 'Kylemore Abbey School' series - which she hopes could eventually make it to the big screen like Fifty Shades. "I would like to be a full-time author, but I'm just not there yet.

"If I was to die tomorrow though, it's nice knowing I've left something behind."

Starting from around €500, Irish company Lettertec - through its website www.selfpublishbooks.ie - is also helping others here to tick writing a book off their bucket list.

"One of the best parts of my job is seeing people holding the finished book in their hands," says business development executive Andrew Haworth. "For many, it may have taken decades to come to fruition.

"We can help people with proofreading, editing and cover design, as well as actually printing and distributing the book. Most people go in for cover design, at least, because it doesn't matter how good the book is, if the cover doesn't catch people's attention, they won't buy it.

"Most of the people who come to us wanting to self-publish a book are not the Fifty Shades type," he adds. "They're the local historian or local poet who just want to get their work out there and break even.

"People pass [their book] on for generations and generations. But the amount of people who come to me actually looking to make money is minimal."

With self-published books now representing 31pc of ebook sales on Amazon's Kindle Store however, for many writers, going it alone is no longer just an indulgence.

Having gone from published author to self-published author, mum-of-one Marisa Mackle knows all about what it takes to become a bestseller under your own steam.

With the help of a publisher, her debut novel Mr Right For Night sold 4,000 copies in two weeks when it was released here back in 2002. Self-published on Amazon nine years later, it knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the top of the book charts in Germany.

"Normally, when you have that kind of success with a publisher, you stay with them," explains Marisa (41) from Dublin. "But I just wasn't happy. I couldn't choose the cover and only found out when the book was being published on Amazon. There's constant pressure: 'How are you getting on?' 'Are you nearly finished?' As a self-published author, there's also terrible pressure, but at least it's my own pressure.

"Being a No1 bestseller in Ireland, you may as well be working in McDonalds," she adds. "When I was with a publisher, I got 6pc [in royalties] - now I get 70pc.

"Some writers will be horrified by this, but for me, selling a book is like selling a bar of soap. There's no point publishing a book if only your mother is going to buy it."

Despite being one of Ireland's best-selling scribes, romantic fiction queen Marisa - whose new book No More Fish hits ebook shelves next week - admits there's still a certain snobbery towards self-publishing: "People used to think I self-published because I couldn't get a publisher, and I still get people saying, 'I wouldn't read the type of books you write'.

"My books may not win prizes, but they sell. If you write a book that entertains people, whether it's published or self-published, it will sell."

Nonetheless, as surefire Christmas stocking fillers such as Brian O'Driscoll's autobiography The Test hit shelves here, more traditional publishers remain sceptical that the ebook could overtake the physical book by 2018, as predicted by accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this year.

"Within Ireland, the sale of ebooks is not as big as perceived," says John O'Connor, owner of Blackwater Press. "You only make money in publishing if there's scale.

"I don't see [self-publishing] as a threat, at all. There's many a self-published book that would not be taken by a mainstream publisher because the interest would be at a local level.

"But fair dues to them," he adds. "I've often sat down with people over a cup of tea and said: 'It's not for me, but if you're going the self-publishing route, this is what you have to do...'

"Most have no idea of the work that goes into it."

Authors who are doing it for themselves

EL JAMES - FIFTY SHADES OF GREY: Originally published as an ebook and print on demand in 2011, British author EL James' 'mummy porn' trilogy featuring billionaire Christian Grey and college graduate Anastasia Steele has now sold more than 100 million books worldwide. The movie, starring Northern Irish actor Jamie Dornan, is out on Valentine's Day 2015.

BARBARA FREETHY - KISS ME FOREVER: Traditionally published for many years, romantic fiction author Freethy began self-publishing her backlist, including Summer Secrets in 2011. Three years on, the Californian mum has sold 4.8 million ebooks, making her the bestselling Kindle Direct Publishing author ever.

LISA GENOVA - STILL ALICE: American neuroscientist-turned-writer Genova self-published her first novel Still Alice, the story of a 50-year-old Harvard professor and mum battling early onset Alzheimer's, in 2007. After word-of-mouth success, it was snapped up by Simon & Schuster, and sold in 30 countries worldwide.

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