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Established South African writers doing it for themselves

Self-publishing is rising in popularity with South African writers who have previously released novels through traditional publishers. To get an idea of what the self-publishing landscape in South Africa is like, four local fiction writers – Paige Nick, Joanne Hichens, Janita Thiele Lawrence and Gareth Crocker – were asked to share their experiences.

The catalyst for a do-it-yourself approach

Paige Nick describes venturing into self-publishing as “one of those happy accidents”. When she initially came up with the idea for Death by carbs she pitched it to her publisher, who expressed interest. She delivered the manuscript on time, but her publisher then decided to pass. Nick says this could have been a disaster because the book was so time-sensitive: “I wanted to bring it out in time for Christmas 2015. It’s such a tactical novel; I knew I had to strike while the craze was still cooking, if you’ll pardon the pun.” Another large traditional publisher was keen to publish the book, but only in 2016. At this stage she had already begun considering self-publishing: this would be her seventh novel and after 22 years of experience in advertising she had contacts in design and printing. “I felt like I understood the process relatively well, and would comfortably be able to manage some of the elements myself. Distribution and sales were really the only hurdles I knew I’d never be able to handle.” Nick teamed up with Bookstorm, who agreed to manage distribution, sales, marketing and publishing side of things for a cut of the royalties.

Joanne Hichens admits that her decision to self-publish grew out of impatience. She wanted to publish her latest novel, Sweet paradise, with the publishing house that had brought out her previous novel, but their publishing schedule meant putting off publication for six months. She says this time delay was the catalyst to publish Sweet paradise as the first book released by her own imprint, Tattoo Press. Hichens also says, “I have difficulty with the sort of gate-keeping that happens in traditional publishing, as well as the sort of agendas – hidden and obvious – that publishers have applied. I consider myself intelligent, with a reasonable experience in publishing and I know what I like. I don’t want to be limited by someone else’s tastes and agendas.”

Janita Thiele Lawrence was initially not keen on the self-publishing route. Then she wrote Why you were taken, a South African science fiction novel that she had a difficult time placing with a publisher. “Local publishers told me that sci-fi doesn’t sell in South Africa,” she says, “and international publishers said it was too South African.” After spending three years submitting the manuscript to publishers she uploaded it to Amazon as an e-book and a print-on-demand. To her surprise she loved the self-publishing process. She says it’s exciting to control her own projects, and the financial rewards are far greater than with traditional royalties.

Gareth Crocker decided to try self-publishing out of a desire to start his own publishing business and wanting to gain a more in-depth understanding of the entire process. He now self-publishes when he wants to try “something completely different and absurd” – like his memoir Ka-Boom! – while he still uses traditional publishing for what he terms his more mainstream novels.

Steering clear of the vanity publishing label

In Lawrence’s experience, readers don’t care who publishes you, only other writers do, and she says the perception of self-publishing as nothing more than 99c Kindle books with atrocious covers is outdated, noting that the indie author industry in the USA and UK is full of writers who are having substantial success: “Anyone who thinks that someone who sells tens of thousands of books without leaving their desk is a “vanity publisher” has not yet seen the future.”

For Nick, the biggest battle she had to fight against the vanity publishing perception was with herself – concerned that she wouldn’t be taken seriously by the industry if she took the leap, and also some self-doubt. “I kept thinking if my big traditional publisher didn’t believe the book would work, perhaps I should listen to them and bin the novel.” But in the end, the fact that her next novel, Dutch courage, was due out with Penguin SA and Harper Collins UK later in 2016 gave her the confidence needed to experiment a bit with Death by carbs.

Hichens had no concerns over this perception, believing the days of self-publishing being synonymous with vanity publishing are over. “With so many established authors taking the plunge, or the calculated decision to self-publish, I feel completely vindicated by the choice.” She notes that there will always be proponents who rail against self-published work or authors, but she believes that the question comes back to who the gatekeepers are: “If one wants to write, and one wants to publish, and you know that you may have an audience of a handful, should that stop you?”

The tough question of the first print run

Crocker advises starting off with a modest print run, saying, “The last thing you want is a garage full of books that you can’t shift.”

Hichens shares this sentiment, opting for small initial print runs of 500 to 700 books: “As I am in effect earning 100% of the “royalties” I need to sell fewer books to make the same sort of money.”

Lawrence says that with Why you were taken she did not want to risk ordering a print run, scared by the thought of shelves of unsold stock. She chose print on demand, which she describes as “extremely efficient, but expensive, as they were printed in the US”. She now has more of a following and can judge by pre-orders how many books to print. She has also since discovered that there are local printers who print on demand and says these two factors have made the paperback arm of her business much more profitable.

Nick and the Bookstorm team looked at the early numbers of how many books were sold into book stores and took an educated guess. Nick describes it as “a tricky decision which I ummed and ahhed over for ages. Because when you self-publish, you pay for the printing yourself, so the more you print, obviously the higher the cost. But also, the more you print, the cheaper the per unit cost and the higher your profits.”

To do or not to do it all

Typesetting, proofreading, editing, cover design – producing a novel requires all of these and more. How much should the writer try to do without help?

Nick admits she was absolutely fanatical about these processes, saying, “Self-publishing often has a bad reputation, and part of this is because the production isn’t always as professional as it should be. I was obsessed with the idea that I wanted this novel to be perfectly typeset, professionally designed, and edited to within an inch of its life. I didn’t want anyone ever to be able to accuse this novel of feeling ‘cheap’ or ‘self-published’.” She hired professionals to manage typesetting, cover design, editing, proofreading and line editing, in both English and vernacular, to ensure the slang was on point.

Hichens made full use of outsourcing: “My aim is to build a team around me,” she says, “to get to know people whom I can trust to get the job done at a reasonable price.”

Crocker employs the same people who normally design and edit his traditionally published novels: “My advice to those writers out there considering the self-publishing route is that you absolutely should not skimp on four things: editing, design, typesetting and print quality.”

Lawrence does her own cover design. She notes that she would usually say this is asking for trouble, but having been an award-winning advertising art director she knows her way around cover design and typesetting. She does outsource beta reading, editing and proofreading. “I like to self-edit,” says Lawrence, “so I do that, but when I’ve produced the best possible manuscript I’m capable of, I hand it over. The more eyeballs, the merrier.”

The daunting matter of distribution

Having written a good novel means little if potential readers can’t get their hands on it. Lawrence says Amazon has made distribution a dream for indie authors, with e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks available all over the world. But she feels that getting local bookshops to stock copies is usually too expensive to warrant the trouble, unless they are indie bookshops, who are often very supportive. She sells her books through her book-dealing business, Pulp Books, allowing her to keep more of the profits instead of spending it on warehousing, distribution and trade discounts.

Nick says there is no way she could have managed sales and distribution herself, and she feels Bookstorm earned every cent of their cut of the royalties. Bookshops have also given great support in stocking and selling Death by carbs – it was recently shortlisted for the Nielsen’s Bookseller’s Award. But she believes the tactical nature of the book helped with this and that she would not have had the same success with a more traditional novel.

Crocker feels getting wide distribution is where being a traditionally published author makes a big difference: “I’m fortunate as my track record made the book an easy sell into the major chains. In terms of distribution, I simply agreed a deal with a local book distributor, of which there are several currently in operation.”

Jacana takes care of distribution for Hichens. She says she’s had a steep learning curve in meeting deadlines for information sheets and getting information to Jacana about forthcoming publications.

The writer as marketer

One aspect of self-publishing that writers often find intimidating is how to go about marketing their work.

Nick says this is an essential part of self-publishing success: “We do every imaginable kind of marketing. You have to.”

Lawrence says, “I chat about my books on social media but I hope to never be that “BUY MY BOOK!” person.” Once I have a couple more books out I’ll start to invest in marketing, particularly Facebook advertising and free/99c promotions like BookBub.” She says an effective strategy so far has been listing one of her books as permafree on Amazon and placing links inside that direct the readers to her other books and to sign up to her mailing list. The memory of water has had close to 10 000 downloads, becoming an Amazon bestseller in the free store, and has climbed to number 1 in Dark Comedy. Lawrence says, “That’s a lot of exposure that’s cost me nothing.”

Jacana does the marketing for Hichens. She also does what she can, like contacting reviewers she knows and using Facebook and Twitter to ensure people know about a book. ‘This makes it fun,” Hichens says. “In fact, I am always marketing. It’s part of the game. I also arrange launches, and pay for them!” Crocker intended to do a lot of marketing for Ka-Boom!, but the book’s release coincided with his having to write a major television show that ate up any time for marketing.

Online versus hard-copy sales

Lawrence says at the moment her paperbacks still sell better than her e-books, but once she gets a foot in the door in the UK and USA, e-book sales should far outweigh the paperbacks. She also mentions something that will be all too familiar to local writers: “Unfortunately the South African market is just too small and staid to bet your writing future on.” She also advocates spreading one’s publishing net: “Once you’re a little more established, it’s wise to go wide (Kobo, iBooks, Nook, etc) so that you can grow your audience and not have all your eggs in the big scary Amazon basket.”

In Crocker’s case, hard-copy sales have been stronger than e-book sales. He suspects this is related to having limited time to spend on increasing his visibility and promotion.

In Nick’s experience, online equates to about ten percent of the paperback sales. “For some inexplicable reason we’ve had great luck with online and print-on-demand sales in USA,” she says. “At the beginning of the process Bookstorm asked me if I wanted to try to distribute in the USA, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try in small numbers. Without any marketing that we know of in the USA, we had to go to a second print over there recently, which is surprising news. I’m sure it’s the Tim Noakes connection.”

Hichens admits to a definite preference for print copy. Her books Divine justice and Sweet paradise are online with Amazon, but she has not spent a lot of energy on promoting them there. “There are so many platforms to exploit,” she notes, “but I think one chooses one or two and sticks with them to build up a following.”

Is there scope for writers or small presses to collaborate and help each other?

Hichens feels collaboration is the way to go with self-publishing: “One small press may have strengths which another doesn’t, and to share costs on a project sounds sensible. I’d like to do more of this, to find projects and to collaborate – essentially to share skills.”

Lawrence’s experience of what she calls the “indie author tribe” has been characterised by support and generosity and she says, “I wouldn’t have a clue if it weren’t for trailblazing mentors like Joanna Penn in the UK and Rachel Morgan Goetsch, Melissa Delport and Ashleigh Giannoccaro here in South Africa.”

Nick echoes these sentiments: “This process has been wonderful, and I made more than I would have had I published it traditionally, locally – although I believe strongly that this works only with a very specific kind of book, and an author who already has a bit of a platform or track record. Without these things in place it’s incredibly hard to get the distribution right. And distribution is everything.’

Advice for other authors considering self-publishing

Hichens advises consulting a small press in order to get to grips with the pitfalls and to get a manuscript review. “The problem with self-publishing just any old thing is that the market can become flooded with a million titles,” she says. “I think any person who wants to self-publish should do everything in their power to ensure a readable, quality product.”

Crocker feels that self-publishing is a lot easier if an author already has an established track record and a loyal readership: “I would argue that many of the book chains are quite happy to take on your book, under whatever imprint, provided that your previous novels have sold well.”

Nick cautions that no matter how carefully you plan and budget, it will cost at least ten to fifteen thousand rand more than you had imagined.

Lawrence is unequivocal: “Without hesitation, I’d say: Do it! It’s been one of the most exciting, rewarding things I’ve ever done. My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner.”

Author bios

Paige Nick is an author, Sunday Times columnist, and award-winning advertising copywriter. Her latest novel, Dutch courage (Penguin SA) / The wrong knickers for a Wednesday (Harper Collins UK), is set in a strip club in Amsterdam where all the strippers are celebrity impersonators. Paige lives in Cape Town, where she spends an unhealthy amount of time writing. She hates spiders, cellulite and plastic forks and gravitates towards shoes and unsuitable men.

JT Lawrence is an author, playwright and bookdealer based in Parkhurst, Johannesburg. She is the mother of two small boys and a baby girl, and lives in a house with a red front door. Her first novel, The memory of water (2011), is about a writer who would do anything for a story. Her 2015 offering, Why you were taken, is a pre-dystopian sci-fi thriller starring a synaesthete, and takes place in a futuristic Joburg burdened by infertility and a water crisis. It was optioned by the national broadcaster, SABC, for a radio adaptation, and the much anticipated sequel, How we found you, is currently in the works.

Gareth Crocker is an international author and filmmaker living in Johannesburg. His five novels have sold more than three million copies worldwide. Several of his novels have been published by Reader’s Digest Select Editions together with those of the likes of James Patterson, Lee Child and Jeffrey Archer. Two of his novels have been optioned for films in Hollywood. Gareth has just finished writing and directing his first international television series with a second series currently in production.

Joanne Hichens is the author of the young adult novel Stained and the crime thrillers Divine justice and Sweet paradise. She is also the editor of the Short.Sharp.Stories anthology, winner of the Edited Fiction Volume Award at the inaugural National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences Book, Creative and Digital Awards.

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