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A Shout for Lulu: Alistair’s Self Publishing Story

Below is the self-publishing story of Alistair Sowerbutts, author of The Pyn King. He discusses his motivation to self-publish, the self-publishing process itself, and his marketing efforts after publication.

I self published the first version of The Pyn King for my sister. She had agreed to check the book for glaring errors before I started sending it out to agents. The manuscript was over three hundred and fifty double spaced pages and as such was unwieldy for a busy woman who was forever dashing around Europe by plane or train.

And then I found Lulu. (I don’t think UK authors care for that name, by the way. Due to an unfortunate co-incidence, we have our own Lulu who is an actual living person and likes a good shout. This can lead to many a confused conversation.) Quick as a flash, I uploaded the manuscript and about a week later, my very first effort at self publication arrived through the post. It had a plain black cover with white lettering and looked altogether professional, if simple. I was dead chuffed and gave it to my sister the next time I was up in London with her. It was a far more convenient size for her to carry around and, to my surprise, she said she enjoyed it and found it was quite readable. I was amazed! (I should point out that my family are not an X Factor / American Idol lot. If something one of us does is rubbish, the others are quick to point this out; not in a cruel way, I hasten to add. Had I the inclination, I would never be caterwauling in front of Simon Cowell with my folks in the background swearing that I was the next Michael Buble. The conversation with Ryan Seacrest / Dermot O’Leary would go more along the lines of, “Well, we told him he couldn’t sing. He’s awful, isn’t he?”)

I never really forgot Lulu (in either incarnation) but my main focus was on getting an agent and a “proper” publisher. Self publication felt like cheating. As is my wont, I continued to amend the manuscript over the next few years, aided by an ex-editor (via my sister’s contacts – I initially refused help, far too embarrassed to let someone outside the family see my book before I felt it was ready) who advised, to my horror, I re-write the entire tale in third person so as to allow for more detail. (I followed this advice, which turned out to be A Good Thing.) And eventually, I felt it was ready to be sent out into the world. It was a very slow process, as I sent out one copy, consisting of a brief cover letter, synopsis and three chapters, to one agent at a time and waited for a response before approaching the next. And it seemed to take forever for each agent to get round to casting an eye over my work. Some, I was pretty sure, just left it in the slush pile and then sent it back after five or six weeks, unread. As time went on, it seemed to me that the key word in all this, as with everything in life, was luck. You not only had to hope that your manuscript caught the eye of the agent, but also that this lucky break should occur on a day when the agent had woken up, refreshed and invigorated after a perfect night’s rest in a non-lumpy bed, with breakfast, prepared by their loving partner and / or cute forest animals, waiting, was subsequently having the best day of his or her life, ever, and was looking to sign an author of a book exactly like your book.

I didn’t get too despondent. I went into the process knowing it would be an uphill struggle. I just kept plugging away; and eventually, after packing the synopsis and sample chapters up and sending them in to agent number X (I didn’t keep count, as I knew that was the road to madness and depression), two days later a letter was delivered, asking for me to submit the entire manuscript. I felt like framing that letter. So I sent in the entire book, finally hopeful someone would recognise my genius. Instead, a week later, I got the entire thing sent back to me. The accompanying letter said that the people in the agency had enjoyed reading the book and that it was unusual but, after much discussion, they couldn’t decide what strategy to use to represent it. One the one hand, I was quite pleased as this news was confirming that people enjoyed reading the book; it wasn’t a pile of poo, after all. Equally I was quite frustrated. Surely agents should be looking for unusual, as opposed to overtly commercial, stuff?

This was when I started to realise that I hadn’t had a target group of readers in mind when I’d written the book. A good piece of advice I’ve since heard is to go and stand in a bookshop and mentally picture where your book would be placed. (Try not to get over excited and think it’ll be on the table by the entrance!) I did this and wanted to put copies of The Pyn King on every shelf. It’s for everybody, after all! But from my experiences I got the impression that agents like books that fit neatly into one category or another. I’m sure there are a few out there looking for quirkier titles. Finding those agents, as an unknown and unpublished author, is a hard task indeed and again a lot, I think, down to luck.

Now, while all this was going on I was still fiddling with the book. I couldn’t stop myself. It was, to all intents and purposes, complete, but I wasn’t moving on to write anything else because I was editing, editing, editing; sometimes nearly in tears. I was just too close to the book. I felt that, unless I did something drastic, I’d never write anything else as long as I lived and I’d die with a pen in my hand, scrawling amendments. That’s when I remembered Lulu(.com). Lulu was for authors with books that weren’t mainstream offerings; books that wouldn’t sell in their millions but only to maybe a select few. I reasoned that self publishing the book would be no more expensive than sending out submissions for another year, it would put the book “out there” and if enough people liked it I could write to an agent and say, “Here, it’s selling, see? Represent me!” (There was a major flaw in my thinking here: I was forgetting that shy little me would need to market the book!) Lastly, I hoped that having The Pyn King published in some form would let me finally stop changing it and write something else.

So I organised none too shabby artwork for the book (cheers, Neal!) and, taking a deep breath, clicked on that “publish” button at Lulu.com, making the project public. The best thing for me is that I feel like I have closure as far as the once endless editing goes. That is a major relief. I’m writing another book now, trying to avoid the dreaded Blank Page syndrome (see my blog, ali5tair.wordpress.com, for more about that!). It’s going slowly, as ever! This is in part due to family illnesses; in late 2008 my father was diagnosed with a delightful condition called “Dementia with Lewy Bodies” and four months later my mother was given the devastating news that she had terminal colon cancer. Unfortunately, she didn’t react well to the chemotherapy that was meant to try and prolong her life – the disease was too advanced for chemo to do anything other than put off the inevitable – and was hospitalised for the whole of last summer. As I write she’s still with us, as is Dad, in mind as well as body! Now I have my blog I may write about the hell that was 2009 in greater detail!

Lulu, as everyone will warn you, is simply a facility to publish your work. It doesn’t guarantee quality (although my book’s perfect, naturally!), nor does it market your book in any way. Everything bar the printing is in your hands and I enjoyed the process prior to publication enormously. Unsurprisingly, given my oh-so-typical English reticence, The Pyn King isn’t that widely heard of yet. I’m on Twitter, tweeting inexpertly and infrequently to try and raise awareness without appearing too pushy. Last week, having neglected the blog I’d created months ago, I finally put some content up, including the first two chapters of The Pyn King. Compared to some, that effort to publicise the book pales into insignificance and is wholly inadequate to grab the attention of vast numbers browsing the web, but it’s a major step for me!

Thanks for sharing your story, Alistair! For more information on Alistair or The Pyn King, visit his website.

If you’d like to share your story, give us a shout via e-mail or @duolit!