Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How To Pitch A Self-Published Novel to A Publisher - Part One

News that self-publishing author James Oswald has gained a £150,000 ($240,000) advance this week from Penguin in a three-book deal will bring new hope to writers struggling to market their own novels. Oswald, a Scottish farmer, had self-published his crime mystery ebooks in a casual way for several years, but with limited success. The tragic death of his parents gave him a new determination to achieve stardom, as a tribute to their memory.

He followed the now familiar route of offering his first novel Natural Causes on Amazon as a ‘loss leader’ without charge. Buyers were encouraged to pay £2.99 ($5) for the follow-up novel.

He stumbled on the ‘funnel’ strategy now being used by many authors. Buyers went on an email list and were followed up. Repeat buyers were transferred to a ‘friends’ list. They got personalised attention, special offers, discounts, and lots of love. That’s how John Locke sold his first million ebooks and it worked for Oswald too. He had already sold or given away 350,000 novels when Penguin offered him a contract for Natural Causes plus two sequels.

Amanda Hocking took a similar approach in 2011 when she signed a four-book deal with St Martin’s Press. The 27-year old writer had sold over one million copies of her self-promoted vampire romances, using Goodreads, Kindleboards, Facebook, Twitter, and her own blog. In just eleven months between April 2010 and March 2011 she had built a big fan base.

St Martin’s Press bought, in effect, not her books but her fan club.

A new publishing paradigm

Hocking's $2 million contract shook the paradigms of the publishing industry. It was virtually the first time a major imprint had signed a self-publishing author. Until then, self-published fiction had born the stigma of the vanity press. No credible reviewer would look at a Lulu or AuthorHouse novel. No bricks and mortar bookshop would stock it. No book club would list it. But Hocking set a precedent.

Today’s profit-squeezed publishers are more likely to be swayed by the size of the author’s following than by the intrinsic quality of their work. Fans are a guarantee of future sales.

Cynics have likened this policy to the old adage: banks loan money only to those who don’t need it. But it’s good news for those self-publishers, already moderately successful, who have reached a plateau in their writing lives - and a dilemma. By manic effort, they’ve built a reader base, sales record, popular blog and a back-list of profitable titles. What do they do now?

They wanted to be an author and they find they’ve become a huckster. And they don’t like it.

What does a writer do who doesn’t want to hustle – just write?

It’s a growing worry for many authors, and it will get worse. On Saturday, I will be back with the second installment of this two-part series where we can talk about the actual pitch. See you then.

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:


  1. Good post, John, and you hit the gist of it--writers feel more and more like hucksters. It's always been that way somewhat--I always loved the booklet by the Mystery Writers of America, "Shameless Promotion for Brazen Hussies," which came out what, twenty years ago? I've had my share of times feeling like a vacuum-cleaner salesman :) But that has burgeoned enormously with all the social-media outlets.

  2. What is really embarrassing is to fail at both endeavors!

  3. John, in your third (unmentioned) post on this topic, I'm sure we'd all be grateful if you could tell us how to integrate our inner salesman and our inner writer so they would stop warring one another for our time. Thank you! :)

    The conundrum of the modern writer.

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  5. This certainly underlines the fact that writing the book is only part of the equation. No matter how great its content, it will go unnoticed and invalidated if no reads it. And how are they to read it if they don't know it's there. And how are they to know it's there if it's not promoted. Oh, the many hats that the self-pubbed writer must wear!

    Great post, John! I look forward to the next installment.

  6. This is a helpful series, John, and I do hope you take Kathryn's suggestion and perhaps address this again for one of your posts in June.

  7. Of course, some authors have always been hucksters. Just look at Charles Dickens! But if others wanted to write in reclusive anonymity their publishers would leave them alone with their typewriters. Today, a publisher is likely to ask an unknown author 'how will you promote your book?' To me, that sounds like the wrong question. A royalty of 15% on the cover price - if the author is lucky to get even that - does not include marketing services! Or am I being old-fashioned?

  8. Marketing your book is a big hurdle that the author has to jump. And then s/he has to keep running and pushing forward. I think a lot of authors don't realize how high the hurdle(s) can be.

  9. You asked:

    What does a writer do who doesn’t want to hustle – just write?

    Good question, one I have asked too many times. If you could devote an article on this, it might prove to be helpful to many.

  10. My first thought was, if he gave away 350,000 books, who is left to buy them?!

    Tis always a dilemma, how to switch hats from Creative to Salesman!

  11. Self promotion is the tricky part for many of us, self-pubbed or not. It's a SP writer's dream: being picked up with a major deal by an agent and offered lots of money. The bottom line is there has to be something about your product that appeals to the masses (pet rock? sham-wow) for that to happen ... then you have to get your product noticed. Perhaps we need an "as seen on TV" store for books.

  12. Another way to get your self-published book noticed, Diana, is to have it independently reviewed by a site that has credibility. Brag Medallion is an interesting new site that does that:

  13. Thanks for this John - I continue to write in hope. I've found that winning awards is obviously not enough - I was naive to think it would. I have found that my writing time is getting smaller and smaller as I network and pass the word that I exist - Its a love/hate thing. Love meeting new people and connecting - hate being away from my true passion - Oh what to do??


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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