Monday, November 12, 2012

Going Indie: Why Quality Matters

It is my pleasure to welcome Helen Hollick, historical novelist and indie author discussing what it takes to be a successful indie author.

Indie authors – self-published writers – are gradually gaining respect from potential readers, but it has been, and still is, a long haul for those of us to publish our novels under independent means (i.e. not with a traditional mainstream publishing company) and not be condemned as failures or not good enough for “proper publishing”.

Most of us who have chosen the Indie route have done so for a reason. In my case it was because my previous UK mainstream publisher (Heinemann) decided to drop my backlist. Historical fiction had fallen from popularity, my books had not sold as well as expected mainly because of poor marketing. I also discovered that my agent was doing nothing for me. We did not see eye-to-eye on a project I passionately wanted to pursue (my Sea Witch Voyages) so she dropped me. End of career, I thought.  I retrieved my copyright, wrote the pirate-based novel I wanted to write, picked myself up, dusted myself down and found a small Indie company who had an even smaller mainstream imprint.

Looking back, the quality of the books they published for me were less than wonderful. Poorly set in places – even printed in Comic Sans for the first few books (I didn’t realise they would print exactly what I sent them – I assumed they would set everything in “house style”.) I was not especially surprised when the company went bankrupt. The staff did their best, but when the MD didn’t pay them, the printers, the office rent or due royalties to most of his authors, perhaps his going belly-up was a good thing.

For me, however, being with that company gave me a breathing space, to learn things quickly (how to and how not to do things!)  – and allowed the publishing world to cotton-on to the emerging importance of Indie Publishing. I am now with a fantastic UK Assisted Publishing Company, Helen Hart’s This is Helen’s own company and she does all she can to produce, quality books for authors who, for whatever reason, decide against Mainstream Publishing.

There is one thing that my personal experience has taught me. A book is only as good as it is written, as good as it has been edited, and as good as it has been produced.

 There is an ocean of difference between poor-quality, unedited, incorrectly formatted self-published books – and the ones that, frankly, are no different than those published by Random House, Harper Collins or any of the Big Boys… in fact, some self-published novels being produced now are even better than those being produced by the traditional houses. This is because those of us who take our writing – and self-publishing – seriously, do so with a professional eye. We are determined to prove that we mean business, that we are capable, respectable, worth-reading authors, and are taking care to produce quality books.

So what do I mean by “quality”?
If you are going to produce your own book – either literally self-publishing it, or commissioning a company to do all the technical stuff for you – type-setting, cover design etc – the writing itself must be good. Maybe you have been turned down by agents and publishing houses for a reason, perhaps your story really isn’t good enough yet. It needs polishing, it is too much “tell” not “show”; too many point of view changes; too much author’s voice. The plot, perhaps, does not have enough pace. Or just (I’m sorry to say this, but I am being honest) too badly written.

Get an independent critique from a professional company. And be honest with yourself. You cannot get an honest opinion from friends and family – your Mum/Aunt/Best Friend is going to love it, even if it is more boring than the latest edition of the telephone directory. An outsider will give that professional opinion – and if they say it needs work, don’t get all huffy. Real writers appreciate constructive criticism, professionals give constructive appraisal (not destructive – someone who says “this is rubbish” because they happen to prefer thrillers to romances is not being helpful!)

So when you know your labour of love has potential, find a professional editor. And no, this is not just for checking the spelling and punctuation. You will need a full, concise, edit to pick up on things like continuity errors, rambling passages – scenes that are too slow, missing explanations or too much explanation. After a full edit (and a re-write) then comes the copy edit for grammar, punctuation, spelling. Then the proof read – again get someone else to do this as well as yourself – you will not pick up your own errors.

Engage a professional cover designer. Yes your favourite niece might be a budding artist, but what makes an attractive picture does not necessarily relate to an eye-catching book cover, especially when it is reduced to thumbnail size.

Then there is the typesetting. Use a respected font, not Comic Sans, make sure the margins are not too narrow, nor too wide – and straight-edged on each side. Professionally produced books do not have ragged-edged (i.e. left justified) margins! Single line spaces, not double, page numbers at the bottom if you are publishing in the UK (at the top is the trend in the US) In short, do your homework. Look carefully at how established publishing houses produce their books and emulate their examples of layout from the copyright page to the end-piece.

If you want to be regarded as a good, high-standard, worth-reading author, then ensure your books look, feel and are of the highest quality. Give your readers the full enjoyment that they have paid for and leave them wanting your next glittering diamond, and the next … and the next...

Thank you Helen for informative and encouraging suggestions on what we aspiring self published and indie authors can do to make our brands hold their own with those traditionally published. I would also add that in lieu of finding local writing groups and critique buddies, that there are many online critique workshops where we can get honest feedback. When I first started on my writing adventure, I joined Critique Circle where I was able to get the support I needed. But it doesn't stop with peer critiques. Helen's point about engaging a profession copy editor cannot be stressed enough. 

Discover more about Helen and her books on her website: Helen Hollick's World of Books.

Her book, Discovering the Diamond, A guide to writing and getting published from a bestselling author can be found:

On Kindle $2.99

On Kindle £1.54


  1. thank you for inviting me onto your blog Joan - one final piece of advice for hopeful authors..... After you've finished your first novel you _might_ not get picked up for publication, but until you get it written you _definitely_ won't get it published.
    So stop reading this and get writing!
    Goos luck!

  2. Excellent post, Helen and Joansz - and I highly recommend "Discovering the Diamond" too, which should be compulsory reading for all writers hoping to publish their books, independently or otherwise!