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Tessa West on self-publication

Hawking the Owls

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Open any magazine whose readers include novice or would-be writers – from Writers’ News to the London Review of Books to Mslexia – and it’s clear that there must be an increasing number of people prepared to pay to be published. There are numerous businesses which say they will turn your manuscript into a real book, and they probably do a decent job. But the real issue for a self-publisher, whether this is someone who does it virtually on their own as I do, or a company with a sales team, is marketing.

Having sold some thousands of my first two self-published novels and made a profit (as long as I don’t factor in actual writing time), I decided to devote a day to selling my third. My novels are all set in East Anglia and it’s this geographical aspect that enables me to interest the local media, big and small booksellers, and a range of other less conventional outlets such as museums, tearooms and pubs. I’ve learned that it’s well worth the trouble to seek out the last group. One pub, featured in my first novel, sold 200 copies. Moreover, the landlord agreed to a 25 per cent discount – a much more generous deal than any bookshop gave. Better still, I never had to send invoices or chase them up. I’d just turn up at the pub when they wanted another pack of books and the landlord would reach for the beer mug containing my takings, insist I count the cash there and then, and pour me a half of Adnams.

Few bookshops buy and re-order self-published books without prompting, and even if they do you also have to get out there and sell them directly, which is why I spent one August Bank Holiday Saturday at Thorney, near Peterborough. I chose this small village because my novel Companion to Owls is set there. So, having arranged to have a stall at the tri-annual flower festival, I and my partner Ralph loaded a pile of the hot-off-the-press copies into my Mini and set off for the Fens.

It was a beautiful day

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Open any magazine whose readers include novice or would-be writers – from Writers’ News to the London Review of Books to Mslexia – and it’s clear that there must be an increasing number of people prepared to pay to be published. There are numerous businesses which say they will turn your manuscript into a real book, and they probably do a decent job. But the real issue for a self-publisher, whether this is someone who does it virtually on their own as I do, or a company with a sales team, is marketing.

Having sold some thousands of my first two self-published novels and made a profit (as long as I don’t factor in actual writing time), I decided to devote a day to selling my third. My novels are all set in East Anglia and it’s this geographical aspect that enables me to interest the local media, big and small booksellers, and a range of other less conventional outlets such as museums, tearooms and pubs. I’ve learned that it’s well worth the trouble to seek out the last group. One pub, featured in my first novel, sold 200 copies. Moreover, the landlord agreed to a 25 per cent discount – a much more generous deal than any bookshop gave. Better still, I never had to send invoices or chase them up. I’d just turn up at the pub when they wanted another pack of books and the landlord would reach for the beer mug containing my takings, insist I count the cash there and then, and pour me a half of Adnams. Few bookshops buy and re-order self-published books without prompting, and even if they do you also have to get out there and sell them directly, which is why I spent one August Bank Holiday Saturday at Thorney, near Peterborough. I chose this small village because my novel Companion to Owls is set there. So, having arranged to have a stall at the tri-annual flower festival, I and my partner Ralph loaded a pile of the hot-off-the-press copies into my Mini and set off for the Fens. It was a beautiful day and the Abbey Green was full of people sticking numbers on bottles, erecting gazebos and spreading cloths on trestle tables. It all seemed very English, especially when the vicar started things off with a prayer. I very quickly realized that the spot I’d been allocated was not a good one because it was off the route which most people took as they ambled round in the first proper sunshine we’d had for weeks. We shifted our pitch to a better spot, but still didn’t get much attention. Another tactic was required, so I picked up a couple of copies of the book and began to address passers-by. My spiel was not very different from the one I use with bookbuyers in shops. I’d say something like, ‘Good morning. Can I interest you in this novel I’ve written?’ As I held it out to them so they were likely to take hold of it, I added, ‘It’s set here – actually in Thorney.’ The responses were legion, and as the day went on I became increasingly intrigued.
‘I don’t read. I’m a couch potato.’ ‘I don’t live here. I live in Whittlesey, so it wouldn’t mean anything to me.’ (Whittlesey is just a few miles from Thorney.) ‘I’m frightened of owls.’ ‘It’s my wife who’s the reader.’
Some people studied the cover intently, then the family tree at the beginning and the acknowledgements at the end. Then they’d begin to leaf through, only to return the book to me a few moments later. Some picked up one of my other novels and struggled to decide which to buy – and a few bought all three. I found myself reading the blurb aloud to people who had forgotten their glasses. Others had no hesitation at all when I or Ralph approached them with our ‘Could I interest you?’ question. ‘No. You can’t.’ ‘Yes, of course. It looks great.’ Some were literally speechless and just shook their heads or looked at the ground, though a few tried to engage me in conversations on very different topics. It was impossible to predict how people would respond. Ralph and I made guesses based on stereotypes but this did not help at all. A bookish-looking couple (whatever that is) claimed only ever to read the local paper. When I approached a couple of 16-year-old lads one immediately bought a copy for his mother, borrowing the cash from his friend. Money was certainly an issue. In order to avoid buying the book, some resorted to saying they had no money on them before heading off to invest in raffle tickets. And of course others would have liked to buy, but genuinely couldn’t. I found myself urging them to order the book from the library. I was asked three times who the money was going to, and answered that, in common with the other stalls, 20 per cent was going to Thorney Abbey.
‘I’d buy it but my husband/wife’s got the money.’ ‘£7.99? Is it worth it?’
Once, towards the end of the day when I was beginning to weary a little, I was asked yet again what the book was about. As I explained, my listener started to fidget. So I stopped and asked, ‘Not your sort of thing?’

‘No. It’s not for me.’ I couldn’t help adding, ‘So I’ve written the wrong book?’ ‘Yes.’

We watched the three tombolas do brisk business while the rows of jars on the home-made jam stall steadily diminished. We marvelled at the perennial interest in bric-à-brac. ‘Who did you say wrote it? Oh, you did! Will you sign it for me?’ The sight of me signing always drew attention and I wondered later whether I might have sold more if I had just sat there all day writing. In the end I sold about fifty books, which felt quite respectable. As we packed up someone said to my partner, ‘Tessa West? Never heard of her, but I wish her well.’ Today I checked out the Saturday Guardian’s weekly best-seller chart. The paperback fiction list was headed by One Day. Like my book it costs £7.99, but it had sold 44,034 copies. Still, I bet David Nicholls didn’t have as much fun as I did selling it. He certainly didn’t consume as much tea and as many home-made scones, and he didn’t even try to win a teddy bear.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 38 © Tessa West 2013


About the contributor

Tessa West is the author of The Estuary, The Reed Flute and Companion to Owls. Waterside Press, which published her Prisons of Promise in 1997, has just brought out her biography of the prison reformer The Curious Mr Howard.

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