A very warm welcome to Jane Davis today – an author who has used both the traditional and the self-publishing routes for her novels. (Do sign up to her Newsletter, she asks; I have!). I asked her a few searching questions and received some thought-provoking answers.
Your favourite description of fiction is that it is “made-up truth”. How right you are! What would be your answer to the inevitable question: “How much of your writing is autobiographical?”
Although it may only be an emotion, it’s inevitable that something of me ends up in each of my books. If I need to write a tired and emotional scene, I might set the alarm for the middle of the night.
While I was writing “Half-truths and White Lies”, my middle school was pulled down to make way for a housing estate. Since it was within walking distance of my job, I made a pilgrimage every lunchtime to see the wrecking balls do their work, documenting the progress with photographs. In the evenings, writing as Peter Church, I described the dismay he felt at discovering that a block of flats had been built on the place where he used to play marbles and that more blocks had been built on pitch where he played football. He asks himself the question, is it possible to mourn the loss of a building as you would a person? “Or is it simply that St Winifred’s was the shell that I stored so many of my memories in? How is it that my old school was torn apart and I didn’t feel a physical wrench?”
In “A Funeral for an Owl”, Jim discovers that his pupil Shamayal is living in the council flat that he had lived in as a boy. I knew that flat because I lived there too and so some of the small anecdotes are things that happened to me.
I wrote my latest release, “An Unknown Woman” in a year when my income had dropped to a level that I hadn’t earned since the late eighties, and so I chose to explore our relationship with material possessions. I also wanted to write about a character who is like me, but is not me. A woman in her late forties who has chosen not to have children and is living with a long-term partner, but is unmarried. Although she’s happy in her relationship, there is a nagging sense of alienation that she doesn’t like to acknowledge, sometimes from her friends whose time and energy is taken up with young children, sometimes from the life she imagined for herself when she played Mummies and Daddies, and was bridesmaid at an aunt’s wedding. In many ways, her life lacks milestones. Measures of success and achievements. And so she has ploughed everything into her relationship, her work – which she loves – and her home. And then her home and everything in it are taken away from her. In the first scene, Anita is standing outside her home watching as it burns to the ground. The house is recognisably mine. If you set out to write something that is authentic and true, you have to make it personal.
Your first book, “Half Truths and White Lies” Winner of Transworld/Daily Mail First Novel Award, was traditionally published – and yet you have self-published ever since. Has this been a successful move on your part?
Your question credits me with slightly more planning than was involved! I would be lying if I said that self-publishing was my first choice, but it certainly hasn’t turned out to be a consolation prize.
My writing career has been a roller-coaster ride. My first unpublished novel earned me the services of an agent, and she was the first person who told me, “Jane, you are a writer.” She was also the person who suggested that I attended the Winchester Writers’ Conference, where I learned about the Daily Mail competition – just two days before it closed for entries.
Told I was going to be the Next Big Thing, my reality check came with the rejection of my second novel. Transworld published me under their women’s fiction imprint and my next book was not women’s fiction. In 2009, the advice – advice I paid for time and time again – was that any self-respecting writer should hold out for a publishing contract. Of course, in this rapidly moving industry, what was true even two years ago is no longer true. Last year, The Society of Authors Chief Executive, Nicola Solomon, gave self-publishing the stamp of respectability when she said that that traditional publisher’s terms are no longer fair or sustainable. Her advice to members was that they should consider each project and decide whether they would be better off doing it themselves.
And so I held out – for three years. Retreating with my tail between my legs gave me the luxury of time. If I’d been under contract, I would have had to produce a book a year. As it was, I had time to let my novels rest, going back and adding layers and depth, finding new angles, different emphasis; identifying that one sentence on which the entire story pivots. When other authors say to me that they do three edits, my reaction is three? The eureka! moment might not come until the fiftieth edit.
It wasn’t until November 2012 that I decided I owed it to myself to investigate self-publishing. I attended the Writers’ & Artists’ conference and it was a revelation! There, established authors who had been dropped by their publishers were rubbing shoulders with first-time writers who had released their e-book priced at 99p and had sold 100,000 copies within a year. It was a publishing revolution. So was I in or was I out?
It’s important to point out that being under contract doesn’t guarantee sales. In fact, book sales are far lower than most people imagine. Readers tend to only hear about bestsellers, which distort the figures. A couple of weeks ago, The Telegraph published an article exploring ‘Why Great Novels Don’t Get Noticed.’ In this case, the novel had been written by Samantha Harvey, whose debut had been longlisted for the Man Booker, shortlisted for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Guardian First Book Award, and had won the Betty Trask Award. Her third novel, ‘Dear Thief’ had scores of glowing reviews following its September release, yet, it had only sold 1,000 copies. I also write in a difficult-to-sell genre and so could never expect a high volume of sales. In fact, regardless of genre, only 5% of novels sell over 1000 copies.
As I have no intention of planning for failure, that’s the model I work to and, with the services I need to buy, it only allows for break even. If you look at volume of sales as the only measure of success, there’s always going to be disappointment. Very few writers are lucky enough to earn a living from their craft. I measure success by reader reviews. When readers discover me, they enjoy what I write. I’m very happy with my 5-star average.
Now that you have experienced both worlds, what are the drawbacks of self-publishing, and how have you overcome them?
Provided that you are realistic about your budget, there are very few drawbacks to self-publishing. I am able to write the books I want to write without fear of censorship. My work isn’t pigeon-holed into the category of “women’s fiction” as I was for “Half-truths and White Lies”. In fact, I can choose to market myself as a brand if I wish. I can present my novels in the way I want to present them, without having a title change imposed on me, or what I consider to be a misleading, salacious or otherwise inappropriate cover design forced on me. The main drawback is that bookshops, who work on very narrow profit margins, are unable to offer terms that make it practical for me to push to get my books stocked more widely. But as 95% of my sales are of e-books, that isn’t a priority at the moment.
How much more do you market your books now? And how much has being an award-winning author helped you?
After my competition win, I was told by my publisher that they would do all of the marketing. I took that advice at face-value and so, save for maintaining a website, I did very little. However, this is another area where the gap between traditional and self-publishing has narrowed. Last summer I gave a talk with a traditionally published author, debating the benefits of traditional v self-publishing. I had expected her to come down very strongly on the side of self-publishing, but she advised that she had received no marketing support on the release of her tenth novel. So, not only was her advance very much less than she received five years ago, but she had invested all of it in marketing. As far as I could see, the main difference between us was that I have no marketing budget to speak of, and so my main thrust takes the form of direct contact with readers via my website and social media. She was using traditional PR and advertising.
I love your website – very professional and lively. Up to date, too. How much time per week do you spend on promoting yourself and your books, and what do you leave over for writing?
Thank you for your comment about my new website. I invested last year because my old site wasn’t optimised for hand-held devices. I worked with The Curved House and I’m very happy with what they’ve done for me. It’s a clean design and it’s very easy for me to update.
The split between promotion and writing isn’t as clear as it might seem because I also receive 350 emails a day and try to reply to them all. I also work one to two days a week to pay the bills. But of the time I have available for writing activities, I would say that it’s an 80/20 split. And the 80% is promotion, although it’s not all self-promotion. I am a firm believer that part of my job is to read extensively and to review other writers’ work. Like you, I interview other authors. But if I’m not active on social media on any given day, I don’t sell any books. It really is as simple as that.
What would be your ideal environment and time schedule for writing your next book?
I have only ever written at my dining room table, which is definitely not an ideal environment – I don’t live alone and it is the highway to the kitchen and the bathroom! However, Stephen King describes in his book “On Writing” about how he used to write at a small desk under the eaves, and it wasn’t until he had his first office that he first suffered from writers’ block. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In terms of schedule, I aim to produce a book a year every year, but my current project is very research-heavy. My main character is an Edith Sitwell/Vivienne Westwood hybrid who, having been anti-establishment all of her life is horrified to find that she is on the New Year’s Honours List. I have already read five biographies, and am still going. It would be nice to give myself the luxury of two years.
You say that you can often be found halfway up a mountain – have you reached the top of any? We’d love to see a picture or two!
I have just returned from a week’s walking in the Lake District and, yes, I’m pleased to say that we reached the top of several. We experienced all four seasons in one week – sun, rain, hail and snow – so it was a mixed bag, but that’s only to be expected for March.
Thank you so much for your time, Jane. It is a privilege hosting you.
Jane’s website: www.jane-davis.co.uk