Self-publishing success

 22 April 2013

After self-publishing her debut novel, Melanie Clegg built up an audience for her writing career. By the release of her third novel, she had sold over ten thousand books. She spoke about her journey.

Melanie Clegg has published several novels using Kindle. Their success has enabled her to set herself up as a full-time writer.
Melanie Clegg has published several novels using Kindle. Their success has enabled her to set herself up as a full-time writer.

"I write novels – I specialise in posh doom and historical iniquity. I also blog as Madame Guillotine

"The first novel I seriously attempted to write was The Secret Diary of a Princess in 2009. It was supposed to be a young adult novel, in the form of a diary kept by the young Marie Antoinette, and it all started off with a blog."

Starting out as a novelist

"I was at home with a baby, and bored . Each diary entry contained within the novel was a blog post, and I wrote it at a rate of about a couple of posts a day.

"I'd always been writing books, since I was about 14, but that was my first serious attempt to actually finish one – and strongarm people into reading it!

"At that stage I didn't really have any thoughts on selling it widely. I just thought, 'As long as a couple of people read it, that's fine'.

"Gradually people did start reading it, so I turned it into a book."

Having found an audience, Melanie took down the original blog, and the first copies of The Secret Diary of a Princess were sold as physical books from print-on-demand site Lulu.

A while later, she set up Madame Guillotine.

Using Kindle to sell books

"The Secret Diary of a Princess first turned up on Kindle in 2011. It had been available on Lulu for about a year before that, but I realised that Lulu wasn't meeting my needs or reaching as many people in the way that Kindle could."

Melanie's next few novels, Blood Sisters, Before the Storm, and most recently Minette, were all published straight to Kindle. 

"I'd previously had this idea in my head that as a self-publishing author, I somehow wasn't 'allowed' to put my books on Kindle. This, of course, was nonsense.

"Print-on-demand books often look really cheap, and aren't always great quality products, yet they can cost a fortune. You have to sell your book at a pretty high price to make it worth your while to do it, because the printers will take quite a big chunk off your profit.

"I'd had this idea in my head that as a self-published author, I wasn't 'allowed' to put my books on Kindle – nonsense!"

"You're therefore reliant on people really wanting to read your book, which makes it hard to entice new or casual readers."

Using ebook platforms like Kindle has made the process of selling books much cheaper for self-starting authors.

"Even if people only vaguely want to try out your book, they can now do that much more easily. You can have special offer periods where you put the price down for limited periods."

Of course, there are still people who prefer to read a physical book. "I've definitely been hassled about going back to them in the past," says Melanie.

"I've now sold enough Kindle books that a publishing house based locally to me has been happy to bankroll a limited print run of Blood Sisters. I'll get an amount for each one sold."

Promoting yourself with a blog

Melanie initially started up her Madame Guillotine blog after getting fed up of blogging on LiveJournal.

"That was more about keeping in touch with friends – networking just with specific groups of people, in a way. So if I tried to talk about things that interested me, people who weren't interested would 'unfriend' the blog.

"Eventually, I realised I wanted to start a 'proper' blog, where I could talk about whatever topics I wanted, including my love of art, history and writing.

"'Madame Guillotine' was available as a reasonably memorable URL. I'm still quite pleased about that, because as a phrase it's an actual historical nickname for the guillotine, so when people search on Google for it, they often stumble across the site.

At first, success felt "slightly accidental". The blog would often focus on historical figures, fashions and places which were relevant to Melanie's books.

"I just began writing the blog posts I'd wanted to write, often about obscure women from history.

"I don't often write about history in a very academic sort of way – I got that out of my system during my degree.

"I just wanted to share my work with people, and blogging was a great way to do it. Now that I wasn't using the diary format of my first novel, I couldn't post whole chapters on a blog so easily, so I decided to release more books instead.

"I'd blog about my writing processes, the historical periods I was writing the books about, and what I was getting up to more generally.

"At first, I was hoping the blog would get people to buy the books, but now I find that the blog is just as much of a priority. Often, in fact, the books actually fuel and develop the blog, too."

Melanie also uses Twitter and Facebook to let readers know when she posts new material on Madame Guillotine, and update them on the progress of her books.

Going freelance as a novelist

"I went freelance after about a year of solid blogging. I'd released two novels, and I was working from home as a researcher.

"I realised I was making twice as much money selling books whilst doing the job."

"Make your book look as good as possible. People won't buy it if it looks 'too self-published'."

In the end, Melanie decided she was willing to take a cut in her income so that she could write whenever she felt like it.

That said, she feels it's important to treat writing like a job. "I have odd days where I do less, but I have to try and do some writing every day, even if it's just updating the blog or faffing around with pricing on the Kindle store.

"I've been really lucky because my husband is supportive.  I could afford to support myself if it was just me, but it does help to have someone encouraging me. Kids aren't always very conducive to productivity!"

5 tips for self-publishing success

1. Pay attention to the publishing trends going on around you

"I recently changed the covers for my books again – I do this pretty regularly. Since you're doing a lot of things yourself as a self-publisher, it's good to keep an eye on the ways the kind of books you're writing are being sold.

"Cover design fashions change quite often, and you don't want to get left behind.

"Make your book look as much like a 'normal' book as possible – it's an unfortunate truth, but people won't buy it if they think it looks 'too self-published', however good it is."

2. Ask yourself what your heroes would do

"I think it's really good to have a writing hero who you can look up to. I sometimes find myself reading reviews of my own work. Then I think, 'Hilary Mantel wouldn't do this. She's far too busy being awesome.'

"It really helps me to imagine them as a mentor when I'm about to make a decision as a writer, even if it's just 'What would Hilary do?'.

This actually does help me to focus my judgement in a more professional way." 

3. Take care with your editing

"You're writing without a publishing house, so spend time on your editing work.

"The columnist Caitlin Moran's advice, when I saw her giving a talk a while ago, was 'write for the eyes of someone you really fancy'. That works too!

"There will always be people who are less supportive about your decision to do this. You have to ignore them."

"I say to myself, 'Would I want Tom Hardy to read this?' If the answer's no, it's not getting published yet!

"This helps with blogging, but it also helps a bit with the novels too – you want to charm your readers, after all. For historical romances it's particularly good – you'll find yourself writing in this really winsomely flirtatious way, editing out anything which makes you appear less attractive.

"Essentially, consider your audience, and your work is more likely to make people feel good when they read it."

4. Get over your networking nerves

"You need to get talking to other writers and build up a network. For a start, the advice you'll get about tax returns and freelancing will be invaluable.

"All the practical skills I've learned about making a living as a writer came from talking to other writers and getting advice.

"I sell my books in the US too, where tax returns are a bit different, so it's been great having a range of people to help me get into it.

"On top of that, even if you are self-employed, it's impossible to do absolutely everything yourself. Self-publishing with a good network is like using a village to raise a child. You need your network for when you need help.

"For example, the other day the Kindle publishing system made an error and really messed up everyone's revenue, causing lots of writers a lot of stress. It was all sorted out in the end, but being able to talk about it with a community of similarly-affected people was hugely reassuring.

"If I'd been on my own, I'd have been fretting about when I'd be paid a whole lot more."

5. Feel the fear and do it anyway

"I think self-publishing is really cool. I know a lot of published writers who are leaving their agents to join in with the self-publishing thing.

"Getting published can be a really slow process, and in some ways it's just more fun to do it this way.

"There will always be people who are less supportive than you might like them to be about your decision to do this. You have to ignore them.

"People often say that the only reason people self-publish is 'because they can't get readers any other way'. This just isn't true, so feel the fear and do it anyway!

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