Embracing the void: a powerhouse writer turns to self-publishing

Lily Woodhouse is a pseudonym for Stephanie Johnson, who has won the Montana Book Award, the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship and the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award; hell, she co-founded the Auckland Writers Festival. But could she get her latest novel published? Yeah, nah.

So-called ‘women’s fiction’ is rife with stories of women who left, who went adventuring, who broke gender barriers and smashed glass ceilings. It’s rare for a contemporary historical novel to not focus on a proto-feminist, bluestocking heroine. The Sisters’ Lover takes as its main character Flis, the sister that left but for all intents and purposes stayed home, in exile in Wellington.

Flis assumes that for the nearly 20 years of no contact her younger sister has stayed on the farm. After the police visit her Miramar home to tell her that Glad has been missing for seven years and is assumed dead, Flis and her husband voyage west to find out what happened to her. The novel is a gothic mystery thriller, with supernatural elements. Possibly it’s the least erotic of my novels – these characters do more thinking about sex than actually doing it, which I suppose is more true to life.

I finished the book in late 2017 and sent it away to my agent, who sent it to HarperCollins Australia, who had published my first book under the Lily Woodhouse pseudonym in June of that year. Jarulan by the River had major window displays in bookshops all over Australia; I had done interviews in an Australian accent. Many of the interviewers had not read the publisher’s guff so they assumed I really was an Australian writer called Lily Woodhouse. I felt reborn. It was a kind of small miracle.

But sales were not what they expected – and their expectations were high for a book they categorised as ‘high-end commercial fiction’. Despite an admiring editor taking The Sisters’ Lover into two publishing committee meetings, which is unusual, the financial people were not willing to take the risk.

Ever wondered why there are so many debut novels on the market? It’s because their creators have no past. They are highly desirable virgins. Lily was a virgin, and I most certainly am not. Many writers suffer rejection with their second, third or thirteenth novels that are just as good as, if not better than, their first.

My agent sent the book out to other publishers under my real name. It was roundly rejected because apparently I am a literary writer, and The Sisters’ Lover was deemed not literary enough. A New Zealand publisher rejected it because of that well known trope that New Zealanders don’t read books set in Australia, and had the figures to prove it. On top of that, of course, there is Nielsen Book Data.

These three words strike fear and loathing into the hearts of most writers and publishers. This is where most but not all sales figures are collated, and where publishers can check whether or not a writer is worth taking on. In New Zealand major book retailers do not share their figures with Nielsen, so these are only sales in independent bookshops. I set about self-publishing because I had no choice. Nielsen must have me down as an abject commercial failure.

The problem is that I am proud of Lily’s novel. I had lived in that vivid world for so long I couldn’t bear for the lights to go out, so I hired editor Jane Parkin. She wrote to me after her first read, commenting that she had been expecting more of a potboiler, but that the finished novel was ‘subtle and affecting’. She said other lovely things that I won’t reproduce here, because my generation is possibly the last to understand what skites are and that nobody likes them.

At the Auckland Writers Festival 2018 Lily was part of a romance writers’ event in a chocolate shop. I went along in some trepidation because Lily isn’t really a romance writer. It was highly enjoyable: there is a warm sense of camaraderie distinct to romance writers. A couple of women asked why I was still publishing in the old fashioned way and only getting ten percent of the profits. Many romance writers self-publish, and some do very well.

I remembered all this, and I also remembered one of the writers explaining to me that it’s pretty easy, that you use a platform like Amazon to get your books out. To be sure, when I first googled KDP, which is Amazon’s self-publishing arm, there was a lot of online grumbling from various writers. But writers like grumbling. This piece is one big grumble, after all. I wondered, after that first acquaintance with the corporate giant, how traditional publishers would ever survive. It seemed to me that Amazon had covered all the bases, that they had a fail proof system. It was impressive but scary.

There are tutorials online to show you how to put a book up. If you know what you’re doing you can get it done in half an hour. It took me about three days and some bad language and quite a few tears. On February 27th it went live and I wondered, now what? Reviews are what sell books in the real world. Maybe I could ask someone to review it for me on Amazon. But Amazon will only let you review a book if you have spent $50 on their site in the past few months, which seems undemocratic and miserly.

A brainwave. The book had to be available in bookshops. Since it’s only $27 it seemed reasonable that a bookshop could stock it and charge more to make a profit. Amazon tell you that your book is available to bookshops and libraries – the problem is that most booksellers loathe Amazon with a passion and won’t have anything to do with it.

I ordered three proofs from Amazon. They arrived swiftly, not proof pages in the usual sense, but bound copies identical to the finished book. The margins are horribly narrow and it lacks the fly pages and blanks found in traditional books. I wrote to Amazon and received a helpful email from one of the thousands of people who work for the corporation in America. But the thought of another three days struggling with the computer programme was less attractive than putting up with no fly pages and narrow margins. I tried to convince myself they weren’t that narrow and the Amazon-generated back cover not so ugly. It reminded me of books I’d seen in the library.

There are many self-published books in libraries, some of them well-designed and produced. Sometimes the books are there because the writer has asked a friend to order it – because once in a library, the writer is eligible for the Public Lending Right. Administered by the National Library, the PLR recompenses New Zealand writers for loss of income and is calculated on the number of copies in the system.

Governments rarely swell the pot. Hence writers who have laboured for years, whose publishers have invested in quality editors, design and paper receive less and less per book as a deluge of self-published books cram onto the shelves. Library users pull out poorly-written, edited and produced books and wonder if there is any quality control at all.

There isn’t. And now I’ve joined them. Not that The Sisters’ Lover is staring out yet from the W section. It’s early days. And so far, not so very pleasant days. It’s lonely, as if writing isn’t lonely enough. And costly. So far, I’m about $2,000 down. If I had self-published a proper paper book onto the New Zealand market and paid for not only its production but publicity and promotion, then it would be more like $10,000. For a lot of first-time self-publishers who have worked hard all their lives and have savings this is chicken feed and the realisation of a long held dream. In his novel A Mistake Carl Shuker has a character dub the baby boomer demographic frequent fliers. Baby boomers, frequent fliers and now let’s add self-publishers. And why not? Go for your life.

The phenomenon of self-publishing is causing dissent in the area of public funding. Creative New Zealand receives applications for grants from self-published writers who have never been traditionally published, but see no reason for not having a tilt at the public purse. Some boast growing readerships. They have their own independent writers’ festival. They even have their own bookshop in the Wairarapa. Why should they be funded any less than recent graduates of literary writing schools? And haven’t we all heard the success stories of books that take off, that are picked up by real publishers, that capture the public imagination?

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Lily doesn’t worry about any of this. She’s just glad she’s managed to finally expel the baby. It’s been a long labour. In the chilly absence of Midwife Penguin or Random or HarperCollins or whoever, Lily knows she should be pumping her breasts, knitting the layette and making sure he is thriving out there in the cold old world. Now and again I give her a kick and she posts on Facebook, examines her author profile on Amazon and checks Goodreads, but really she’d rather be writing.

The Sisters’ Lover, by Lily Woodhouse (Independent, $35).

Stephanie Johnson’s first non-fiction work, West Island: Five Twentieth Century New Zealanders in Australia (Otago University Press, $39.95), will be launched on Thursday 16 May at the Auckland Writers Festival, and available at Unity Books.

Stephanie talks about the book at the Festival with Tina Makereti on Friday 17 May, 11.30am in the Waitakere Room, Aotea Centre.


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