Ever since I first self-published back in 2010, I had been unwavering in my stance on the Us Versus Them traditional/self-publishing debate: to get published was preferable but self-publishing could be a wonderfully rewarding and worthwhile Plan B. If it was done right, that is, which to me meant emulating traditional publishing in as many ways as possible. Because they were the experts. They’d been doing this for far longer and with a much better rate of success. They set the standards readers were used to, the standards they’d expect from us and our books now.
As time went on, self-publishing and the tools available to those of us who decided to do it changed and evolved, and I modified my stance somewhat. My goal was still to get published – at the very least, it meant money upfront and someone else covering all the costs – but I also saw that for some books and some authors, self-publishing was the best way to go. Traditional publishing also runs on contracts, which expire, so self-publishing was a great way for authors to breathe new life into their backlists, or to take the reigns themselves. Ideally, I think, the professional author should be doing a bit of both. Over the course of your career, you should expect to.
In March of last year, Corvus/Atlantic pre-empted my debut thriller, Distress Signals, in a two-book deal. At the time, I had been working freelance for Penguin Ireland on social media campaigns for three years and had been self-publishing for two years more than that. I knew exactly what to expect, but I was also wondering what I would learn. Because that’s always where I’d gone for inspiration, tips and tricks: traditional publishing. But was there anything I’d learned from self-publishing that I could now bring to the table? Turns out, the answer was yes.
The Busy Writer
In the three weeks before my book came out, I flew to London to attend my publisher’s author party, tried to cram in as much studying as possible for my university exams that had the audacity to start the day before the book came out, took my first exam, wrote and sent off approximately thirty things like this, wrote and sent off several newspaper and magazine features, did a podcast interview, filmed a book trailer thingy, tried to add 5,000 words to the first draft of Book 2 every day, worked on a campaign for Penguin involving a book that was coming out the same day as, worked on my own social media, made nearly 200 goody bags to hand out at my two book launches (one in Dublin, one in Cork), ran giveaways and then sent out the prizes, bought four launch dresses (yes, I know that’s two too many), organised hotels and dinners and things for friends coming to Dublin for the launch and spent three days in Paris in an attempt to relax but instead ended up walking an average of 22km a day in ballet flats and falling into bed at nine o’clock every night, muscles burning with pain. (I limped back into Dublin Airport.)
But you know what? I was fine. I dealt. Because for the year before and after I self-published Mousetrapped back in 2010, I worked my arse off. (Not literally, unfortunately. Literally, working from home made my arse expand.) I knew what it was like to manage a huge workload under pressure and against a deadline – and while having Other Stuff, like a job, to do too – because that’s what self-publishers do. I was used to spending all day tackling a never-ending To Do list, realising mid-afternoon that I hadn’t got dressed and deciding there was no need to bother now, and then spending the evening supposedly watching TV but actually with my laptop on my knees, writing another blog post or guest feature or email.
Time and time again I come across authors who think all they have to do when their book gets published is sit at home and enjoy the fact that it has. I knew I had to do as much as I possibly could and, thanks to self-publishing, I was able to do it. I was prepared for doing it. Self-publishing was the ideal training ground.
Online is King
Everyone hates the cold, dark days of January but this past one was colder and darker for me than usual, because every time I came across one of those ‘Books We’re Looking Forward To in 2016’ list, Distress Signals wasn’t on it. I consoled myself with the fact that (a) not one of those lists is compiled by someone who has read or even just knows about all the books that are coming out in 2016, because that’s impossible and (b) the ones they do know about are coming from – more than likely – one of the Big 5, the major houses who have the money for full-throttle PR campaigns and the clout to get the most out of them.
It’s not easy to get books reviewed in newspapers and/or mentioned in magazines. It’s incredibly limited and highly valuable space. Whenever you do see a book in a magazine – even if it’s just a thumbnail cover and a release date – it’s the culmination of a huge amount of effort. And because social media only started helping to sell books, like, five minutes ago in the scheme of things, newspapers, magazines and other traditional forms of media (radio, TV, etc.) is the main focus of the typical publishing house’s PR operation. It’s what’s important.
I disagree. I think equal weight should be given to online activities, because I know first hand how incredibly effective they can be. I’ve said this before: social media doesn’t sell books. Word of mouth does, as it always has. But social media takes this word of mouth and puts each recommendation through a megaphone loud enough to reach all four corners of the globe. Ten years ago, if I read a book and loved it, I might tell the two or three friends I think would love it too. Now I can recommend it to hundreds of Goodreads friends and thousands of Twitter followers, and help spread the word about it on multiple platforms: Instagram, Facebook, my blog, etc. And here’s the kicker: there are enough megaphones for everybody. And they’re free. Online, there are no limits to the space available and this level playing field is free for everyone to play on.
This is what self-publishing taught me. I know when you’ve published your book to what feels like a deafening silence, the idea of promotion and social media and author platforms can seem like a daunting task with no guarantee of success. But remember: there is a chance of success. And it is, for the most part, completely free to try. In terms of methods for selling books, self-publishers are on the right side of the fence. Make the most of it.
A Sense of Appreciation
Most of all, what my self-publishing adventures has taught me is to appreciate what is happening now.
I remember worrying that, thanks to a volcanic ash cloud, the stock for my Mousetrapped launch wouldn’t arrive in time. (It arrived the day before. My nerves were shredded.) I remember staying up until the early hours of the morning to finish Backpacked so I could make the pub date I’d promised my readers. I remember the pit of anxiety in my stomach every time I made a mistake, or found a mistake, or was attacked or ridiculed online because of what other people thought were my mistakes. Although I hired freelancers for various things, I was effectively a one-woman show. I was alone. If things went wrong, there was only me to blame.
Now there is a team of people working with me. An agent, an editor, publicists here in Ireland and in the UK, and various – and numerous – other roles that have birthed this book from behind the scenes. We all want the same thing: to make Distress Signals as great as it can be. It makes me realise what an achievement self-publishing well really is, because you do the work of so many people all by yourself. And because of that, I really appreciate their help now.
Ultimately, I have self-publishing to thank for a lot of things. Options, training, insight, readers… The list goes on. Whatever your goals, I know one day you’ll have a lot to thank it for too. You may already. I hope that you do.
Published May 5 by Corvus/Atlantic in Ireland and the UK, June 2 in Australia and New Zealand. Details of North American publication later in 2016 coming soon.
Did she leave, or was she taken?
The day Adam Dunne’s girlfriend, Sarah, fails to return from a Barcelona business trip, his perfect life begins to fall apart. Days later, the arrival of her passport and a note that reads ‘I’m sorry – S’ sets off real alarm bells. He vows to do whatever it takes to find her.
Adam is puzzled when he connects Sarah to a cruise ship called the Celebrate – and to a woman, Estelle, who disappeared from the same ship in eerily similar circumstances almost exactly a year before. To get the answers, Adam must confront some difficult truths about his relationship with Sarah. He must do things of which he never thought himself capable. And he must try to outwit a predator who seems to have found the perfect hunting ground…
“Pacey, suspenseful and intriguing … [A] top class, page turning read. Catherine Ryan Howard is an astonishing new voice in thriller writing.” — Liz Nugent, author of 2014 IBA Crime Novel of the Year Unravelling Oliver
“An exhilarating debut thriller from a hugely talented author. Distress Signals is fast-paced, twisty and an absolute joy to read.” — Mark Edwards, #1 bestselling author of The Magpies and Follow You Home
Read a preview of the first three chapters here:
Catherine Ryan Howard was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1982. Prior to writing full-time, Catherine worked as a campsite courier in France and a front desk agent in Walt Disney World, Florida, and most recently was a social media marketer for a major publisher. She is currently studying for a BA in English at Trinity College Dublin.