A most unlikely story

While for some writers rejection signals the death knell to any literary ambition, for others it just renews their determination to see their words in print. Dominic Prince meets the self-publishers
Click to follow

History does not relate which individual publishers turned down J K Rowling's Harry Potter manuscript, or indeed whether they are still in the publishing game. Imagine the stigma and the shame, let alone the figure of fun they must now be. Yet Rowling is not alone in rejection. William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up!, and the Booker Prize winner Yan Martel's Life of Pi were all given the thumbs down by a host of London publishers.

While the aforementioned writers all finally found publishers to produce their work, for many others, rejection simply becomes a spur to pursue their dream of publication alone. There is a new breed of writer who, passed over by big publishers, decide to go it alone and self-publish. Not as an exercise in vanity, but because they genuinely feel that the publishers have got it wrong. Driven by determination and a belief in their own judgement, they are now helped by the wealth of new technologies that make self-publishing easier - and cheaper - then ever before.

I first met George Courtauld last November, when a mutual friend took us out for lunch. Courtauld, a headhunter, had published a book called The Pocket Book of Patriotism. The book had grown from a poster he had designed for his children that featured key events in history interspersed with features such as Churchill's speeches, the Ten Commandments and the text of Magna Carta.

As charming as he was, I suggested to Courtauld that the best chance he had with his book was to try to shift it in bulk to the UK Independence Party. "People said that I'd be mad to publish a book with no experience of publishing. They also said that patriotism is a dirty word. There were only a few people who thought that it was a good idea," says Courtauld.

A week or two later, he had a party to launch The Pocket Book of Patriotism in London. A slim volume, it looked old-fashioned, like a school textbook from the Fifties, and had a certain quaintness. During the evening, he sold 560 copies at £6.99 each. By the end of the following week, he'd sold his entire print run of 10,000.

Courtauld soon found himself being feted by the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun, whose editors had all been invited to the party. The Pocket Book of Patriotism proved to be a useful little textbook, while simultaneously tapping into a lucrative market that publishers had overlooked. After the initial publicity, sales took off by word of mouth.

Even an established writer can find it difficult to shift as many as 10,000 books in a short space of time. That Courtauld sold out his first print run in a week is testament to his determination and courage. He ordered a second print run of 25,000 copies, and within a week he had orders for over 37,000 more. "It was all done from home," says Courtauld. "The postman used to come into the kitchen each morning and pour out sackfuls of post on to the floor - it looked like Mount Everest!"

But when he first started to tout the book last autumn, only two small, independent bookstores, John Sandoe in Chelsea and Heywood Hill in Mayfair, would stock it. The big outlets turned him down flat. "They said there was no market for it. Every single one of them turned it down. Then, Sandoe took six and Heywood took 25 - there was no feeling like it. The petty triumph of getting 31 books into bookshops was fantastic; I went home and opened a bottle of champagne immediately."

The book has now sold over 167,000 copies, and the big wholesalers are begging to be supplied. And, Courtauld adds, with no small amount of glee, "I'm about to bring out an illustrated version of the book in conjunction with Ebury Press [Ebury was one of the seven publishers who originally turned him down]".

Meanwhile, The Pocket Book continues to sell. Although he won't discuss how much he has made, Courtauld does say, "It has been profitable". That maybe something of an understatement - even if he's only making £2 a copy (and that is almost certainly an understatement), he has made more than £300,000 since Christmas.

Nobody really knows how many self-publishers there are in the UK, but type self- publishing into Google and you will see that there is no end of help for those interested. Websites such as Publish and Be Damned (www.pabd.com) are a good starting point. Some estimates say that there are tens of thousands of self-publishers, but one thing's for sure, the technology has made it much easier. The internet has brought down the cost of self-publishing, and much of the work can be done over the internet and on a home computer. A typical self-publish venture can get off the ground for a few thousand pounds now, whereas previously you'd be talking about a minimum of £10,000.

You might think that the photographer Homer Sykes would be well-known enough to have all of his work published in the mainstream, but two of his 12 books were self-published. His most recent is a beautiful social portrait called Hunting with Hounds that he brought out at the end of last year. I met Sykes at the Waterloo Cup hare-coursing event in February, when I bought a copy of the book for £20. I was his 199th customer; he'd sold nearly £4,000 worth of books over the three-day event.

"Profit is not the motive. The reason I do it is to get my work seen by a wider public, and it's nice to make a profit and bypass the publisher," he says. Sykes had already self-published a previous book called On the Road Again, a record of his four trips over 30 years travelling America on a Greyhound bus. That book was profitable and generated a lot of work for Sykes, so it was clear to him that this was the route to take. "I love hard work, so I produced it, funded it and saw it off the press, and then got down to selling it. I have a main distributor selling into bookshops, and then I handle the non-traditional outlets such as fishing shops and gun shops. I also sell it out of the back of my car to interested focus groups. I sold 600 copies over Christmas in that way," he says.

The first print run of Sykes' book was 2,225, but they have all been sold and he's upped the ante slightly for the second one with 2,500. With many publishers working on margins of 600 per cent, it makes clear commercial sense to self-publish.

However, not all self publishers are so successful. Louise Haines, the editorial director of the publishing company Fourth Estate, says that most of the unsolicited manuscripts she gets are rubbish. "You do make mistakes from time to time, of course, and when you do you kick yourself. But we get thousands of manuscripts sent to us, and they go into what is known as the Slush Pile. Now, sadly, there are fewer people to go through it because there are fewer resources. In the old days, we had a reader, now we just don't have the time or money, and obviously mistakes are made. I've turned down books that have gone on to do incredibly well elsewhere," she admits.

One of the reasons that Tim Stafford published his own book, The Journal of Mortimer Fish, was to be in control of the publication process. He wrote the book, a charming and amusing read about the life and times of a terrier dog (Mortimer Fish) as a cathartic exercise following the very sudden death of his wife from cancer in January 2000. "I hawked it around and sent it to at least 40 publishers and they all wrote back saying they weren't interested. In the back of my mind, I'd thought about doing it myself so, when the local publisher Dovecote Press turned me down, I decided to go ahead on my own," says Stafford.

To be fair it was the Dovecote Press that got him going. They told him that he should have a go at publishing the book himself and were full of enthusiasm and encouragement. "Publishing had gone into a downturn, so I thought that I would try to do it myself. If you send a book to a publisher, it is rather like sending a child to boarding school - you are not quite sure how they are going to come back," says Stafford.

So, was it worth it? "Oh yes," he says, "It has been great fun and it's selling by word of mouth. People ring me and say, 'I've just been staying in a house and your book was in my bedroom. I think it is wonderful and I would like to order six copies please'."

The book sells at £7.95, and the first edition of 1,100 sold out. The second edition, which cost £1,200 for 1,000 copies has sold 300 so far. But now Waterstone's is plugged into the book, and Stafford expects to sell the remaining 700 copies shortly.

"I went round the smaller bookshops myself because Waterstone's had said no. Then, when it did say yes, it asked for a 45 per cent discount on the cover price, and wanted me to pay the postage. I said that a maximum discount of 30 per cent was all I would give it, and it could bloody well pay the postage itself." It did, and Stafford has made a nice little profit, both emotional and financial from The Journal of Mortimer Fish. So much so that he is busily working on a follow-up. "It will be in a similar vein, but it will be about hunting," says Stafford.

Betsy Bell was not only turned down by publishers, she had the indignity of being turned down by an agent. "I'd written a student cookbook and no one wanted it. I went to Ebury Press and it said no, I went to an agent and the answer was, 'Without a TV series, the answer's no'." Bell lives in Yorkshire but had two boys at Central St Martins College of Art in London who were rapidly running out of money. "The reason was simple, they were having breakfast at Starbucks, lunch at Pret A Manger and dinner at McDonald's!"

By 2002, having been turned down by everyone, she decided to print the book herself. One thousand copies of Hard Up and Hungry were duly printed, and Bell got down to selling. "Foyles, Blackwell's and Ottakar's, as well as Books for Cooks in Notting Hill were all brilliant. People really got behind the book."

And so was the book, according to reports. "The first 1,000 copies cost £3,000 and I was selling them at £10 a copy, even with a 40 per cent discount to the shops, it was still a very good business for me," says Bell. At 134 pages, with 82 recipes and pictures, the book just sold and sold and sold, like all the mainstream publishers said it wouldn't. "It's unashamedly middle class, with lots of cheap food, and it was great fun to do. We sold a lot of copies and I loved doing it, I loved proving the publishers wrong," says Bell.

And guess what Betsy did next? After two years of publishing, she felt the book had become a drag and no longer warranted her attention. "It had gone from being great fun to being a chore. I'd made a bit of money and it was time to get out." She recently sold it to Ebury Press, the company that, all those years ago, had turned it down.