Harry Bingham shares what he has learned about publishing
Harry Bingham runs The Writers’ Workshop,a writing consultancy for first time authors. He is also a successful crime writers whose career expertly straddles traditional publishing in the UK and self-publishing in America, proving that a hybrid approach to publishing can work. Given his breadth of experience as an author and a writing advisor, we asked him to share his own experiences of self-publishing and his key pieces of advice for indie authors.
R: Tell us a bit to start with about your long background as a traditionally published author.
H: Sure. I got my first book deal back in 1998 and have been traditionally published ever since. I’ve worked with all three of the world’s largest trade publishers, I’ve enjoyed multiple multi-book deals and my books have sold all over the world, been adapted for TV, got on prize shortlists and all the rest of it. In terms of genre, it’s been quite varied. I write crime these days (and love it), but have written hist fic, financial thrillers, non-fiction, you name it.
R: And what’s your position today?
H: More complicated! I have a completely traditional publishing relationship with Orion in the UK (part of the giant Hachette group.) I’ve got normal publishing relationships with my overseas publishers, most of whom are offshoots of the large multinationals. In the US, where I used to be published by Penguin Random House, I’m now self-publishing my Fiona Griffiths crime series and having a wonderful time doing so.
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R: Why did you part company with PRH? That sounds like a pretty big step to take.
H: Yes, it was, no question. My editor there was one of the best in the business – she publishes Lee Child, among others – and of course PRH is a huge firm with huge clout. That said, its focus, as is the case with all the Big 5 publishing firms, is on getting strong sales through Barnes & Noble and other physical bookstores. The strategy is: sell a shedload of books through physical outlets, build publicity for the author off that sales success, then let Amazon sales soar on the back of everything else. That works fine if you get that initial burst of sales – but, though my books secured wonderful reviews, the sales were dire, because not many bookshops stocked the darn book. So that left me dangling in space… and though my editor and I talked about ways to continue the relationship, I ended up confident that I could sell more effectively via Amazon than any publisher, no matter how capable.
R: A bit of a gamble! How did that work out for you?
H: Very nicely. I started self-pubbing in the US at the start of 2015, and by the end of the year had already made more money than I was making with PRH. 2016 was even better, both in terms of books sold and money made. I’m already totally confident that 2017 will be better still, I’d be disappointed if my US income doesn’t increase by at least 50% again.
And that’s just to talk about the money side of things. I also have total control over cover designs. I have a mailing list of nearing 3,000 dedicated readers. I get instant feedback from those readers and have a wonderful relationship with them. And I can do things fast and experimentally. So, for example, I fancy trying my luck with Bookbub in the New Year – so I’ll just do it. If you’re even a bit entrepreneurially inclined (as I am), then that freedom is wonderful.
R: How did your literary agent feel about you flying solo?
He was very supportive. Obviously agents don’t usually make money from authors who self-publish (unless those authors use the agent in some way, which to my mind isn’t quite self-pubbing.) But good, ethical literary agents will always place their client’s interests above everything else. In this case there was a really strong argument for doing as I did, so the decision was fairly straightforward.
R: What are your tips for succeeding in self-publishing?
Well, I run the Writers Workshop, which offers editorial services to new writers, so you can call me a little biased if you like, but by far and away the most important thing in any sort of publishing is to WRITE A GOOD BOOK. Or actually, scratch that. There are loads of good books out there and from authors with a stronger public profile than yours. So don’t write a good book. Write a wonderful one. Get professional editorial help if you need to, but don’t leave that manuscript until it’s glittering. That’s Rule #1, and the only one that really, really matters.
After that – well, Rule #2, you gotta have a strong cover. That’s another no-compromise area for me. That means paying someone; it doesn’t mean getting your Uncle Phil to see if he can remember how to knock something out on Photoshop. (Matador does great covers, by the way. If you prefer to do your own, then we’ve got some tips on what to look for here.)
And – Rule #3 – build your mailing list. That list of readers who like your work is your passport to visibility on Amazon, and Amazon is the world’s largest bookshop so it’s another no-compromise issue for me. How do I know that 2017 will be better for me than 2016? Answer: simple, I have a larger mailing list now than I did twelve months ago. That list drives sales – and, more than sales, new readers and new names on that mailing list.