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Why more authors are choosing to go it alone

Over 1,500. That’s how many manuscript submissions a literary agent recently told me she receives every year. It’s by no means atypical either. Most agents would proffer a similar number while you can probably double it for publishers.

As an author, it’s enough to make your blood run cold. Is there really any chance of cutting through all that clutter? Will our carefully-crafted book ever make it to the top of the slush pile? Should we just give up while a series of footballers, Love Island contestants and celebrities jump the queue ahead of us?

Yes, yes and no. At least I hope so.

Writing has been helping pay my bills for the best part of a decade now, predominantly through my job as a copywriter for a communications company but also as a children’s author. In that time, I’ve been fortunate enough to have four titles published with Cambridge University Press (CUP). But then, earlier this year, I took the plunge and self-published a children’s football story called Striker Mikey Meets His Match in partnership with a very talented illustrator friend called Terry Eagling Joyce.

Now, as any aspiring author can attest, the briefest of Googles will uncover a whole host of potential pitfalls here. Stories of writers unwittingly signing away their rights (both intellectual and economic) and tales of companies out to make a fast buck using stock images and questionable publishing standards.

While this hasn’t been my experience, I did think hard before parting with my cash – around £500 – for a publishing package. Partly because of the money and partly because, yes, it does feel a bit like cheating. If my book was good enough, surely someone would publish it traditionally, right?

But then I go back to those numbers. 1,500 a year. With that many unpublished titles sloshing around, it follows that even the most brilliant ones risk falling through the cracks sometimes. Little wonder, then, that many writers are choosing to cut out the middle man.

According to the latest figures from bibliographer, Bowker, the number of self-published titles topped one million in 2017, a 28% increase from 2016. I’m willing to bet it will rise again this year.

In fact, the more you look into it, the more you realise self-publishing has moved from last resort to genuine career option. That’s not to say the majority of self-published writers would turn their back should Penguin come knocking. But on Amazon alone, data shows over a thousand writers currently earning a full-time living through self-published titles.

Meanwhile the self-publishers themselves are getting smarter, offering everything from straightforward print-on-demand services to global marketing programmes. More companies are springing up every year too, recognising the growing popularity and sales power of the industry.

Just a few months in (Striker Mikey came out in February), I’m wary of drawing too many firm conclusions. Certainly, I’ve missed the simplicity of CUP doing all the marketing and sales outreach for me as well as, of course, the royalty advance. But it’s also kind of cool to know I have a hand in my own destiny. If I work hard enough to market the book successfully, I will reap the rewards. If I don’t, well, that’s on me.

Either way, the fact it’s possible to make a career as a writer without ever sending a submission email makes for an evolutionary and exciting time. For sure, I will continue to pitch my work to traditional publishers and fervently hope to stand out from the crowd. But like many authors, I’ll take comfort from knowing there are other routes out there.

Whatever happens, though, I know there’s one thing that will never change. Whatever I write and however I publish it, it’s the readers who’ll decide if I succeed or not.

Alex Eeles’ book Striker Mikey Meets His Match is a story of football and unexpected friendship for 6-10 year olds. Buy it here

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