Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Soapbox: Self-Publishing, The Unsung Novelist

Inspired by the story that author, Sade Adeniran, was awarded Best First Book: Africa Category in the 2008 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for her self-published novel, Imagine This, we invited writer, Anne Brooke, onto the Thursday Soapbox, to give her opinions of both the mainstream and self-publishing worlds and look at some of the issues and challenges involved in going it alone.

*Thanks to Flickr for this appropriate pic of a lone fox intrepidly setting out in a snowy wilderness.


Hello, my name is Anne and I’m a self-publisher. Yes, I thought I ought to get that out of the way at the beginning, partly because it’s true and partly because it’s sometimes akin to admitting you’re an alcoholic. Not done in polite circles. And once you’ve admitted it, people laugh nervously, fall silent or drift away. Often all three. Or perhaps that’s because I’m no good at small talk. It’s hard to say.

Half of my books are published by the small press and half are self-published. The latter is something I’m proud of, and am becoming more so as the years progress.

In 2004, I and three fellow writers in Guildford Writers set up Goldenford Publishers as a means of getting our work to market; this was because we were increasingly coming up against a lack of response from mainstream publishers and agents, in spite of the fact that all four of us have won or been placed in significant awards for our writing. For us, it had become the only option.

Let me also state the obvious: amongst the book trade there’s an enormous amount of prejudice about self-publishing. This prejudice is a constant companion to those of us who produce good quality books which don’t fit in with what the market believes it should offer the reader. It might have been true five or ten years ago that self-published books only took that route as they were too badly written to be noticed by the publishing world, but now that is no longer the case. Self-published books become so for very different reasons, most of which are nothing to do with the quality, or lack of it. Some of these reasons are enlarged upon below.

Are Marketing Concepts A False Idol?

It’s interesting that throughout my own writing career, and indeed those of my fellow Goldenford directors, we have been forced to self-publish as mainstream publishers and agents continue to tell us how good our work is, but state they can’t take it on as they don’t know how to market it.

This begs the question of whether, within publishing, marketing concepts are becoming such a false idol that potentially commercial but very unconventional books such as ours are being left to die in the gutter. If that’s the case – and I’ve seen nothing to make me think that it isn’t – then a lot of good, even outstanding, literature is being lost to the reading public.

The love affair of publishers with the marketing god means that only certain types of books are published, and if you don’t fit in then your career is already dead in the water. If you have a strong but very different writing voice – something I believe which is found in all Goldenford books – then don’t bother typing your submission letter; you need to find a different way to reach your reader.

The Challenges For the Self-Publisher

we’ve found that other shops, such as delicatessens, vineyards, and even museums, are more open to stocking self-published books

When moving towards a self-publishing decision, there are many challenges to face.

These challenges include the attitude of bookshops, Amazon and even award coordinators.At Goldenford we’ve had to fight to get into local Guildford bookshops in the past and now it’s virtually impossible. Those with the buying power seem to care little about the quality of the read, but more about whether it’s Print On Demand and whether they recognise the name of the publisher. If the answer to those questions is yes and no, then all hope is lost.

As bookshop administration becomes more centralised, so the leeway given to local authors is disappearing. To get our books to market, we’ve found that other shops, such as delicatessens, vineyards, and even museums, are more open to stocking self-published books and also arranging events. Not only that but online marketing, such as the power of blogs, is a very valuable tool for the self-publisher. Never discount it. Interestingly, when people actually take a chance and read a Goldenford book, they are always pleasantly surprised. Several times, we’ve had the comment that it’s lovely to read something so very different from the bland genre-obsessed fare in their local bookshops. Readers, it seems, are hungry for choice.

The Amazon Problem

That’s what Print On Demand means, in case Amazon hadn’t realised.

Amazon is another problem. Up until recently, our sales through Amazon UK have been steady, if not anything that would set the world on fire. However now, my latest novel, Thorn in the Flesh, has never been available on Amazon from its publication date in February 2008 and other Goldenford novels are also now marked as Not In Stock. This in spite of the fact that our printer, Antony Rowe, has a special relationship with Gardners and books can be produced easily within a matter of days. That’s what Print On Demand means, in case Amazon hadn’t realised.

Out of interest, I did actually order Thorn myself via Amazon in February and so far, after six weeks, there has been no delivery – only one email after a month asking me to let them know if I wanted to cancel the order. Well, I don’t – I simply want to see if they can provide an easily available book. So far, they can’t. Meanwhile the Amazon rating for Thorn in the Flesh remains at five-stars.

Are Awards Prejudiced Against Self-published Works?

The book didn’t get shortlisted…it wasn’t possible as Goldenford is not a known publisher.

At Goldenford, we’ve also come up against significant business prejudice in terms of awards. Last year, we entered Jay Margrave’s The Gawain Quest into a fairly well-known novel competition, primarily as a marketing project: it’s a great historical and literary read, and we’d like people to know about it. The book didn’t get shortlisted, but afterwards we were informally told that some of the panel were keen that it should have been but were advised that it wasn’t possible as Goldenford is not a known publisher. This sort of attitude is very hard to stomach. Perhaps then it’s time for the Arts Council to fund a self-published Book Award – particularly for those high-quality novels which are unlikely to sell more than, say, 500-1,000 copies (and often considerably fewer!) but which are still worthy of notice.

Getting Reviewed

In the online world, there’s an encouraging openness in giving critique to non-traditional books

One encouraging aspect of self-publishing is the openness of online books reviews to small- and self-published books. I have had books reviewed by Vulpes Libris, Jill Weekes’ book review site , and the It’s a Crime site, amongst others, and very favourably too. This does help sales and, at the very least, gets our names out there. In the online world, there’s an encouraging openness in giving critique to non-traditional books which is regrettably absent from the traditional hard-copy reviewing press.

As in my previous point, perhaps it’s time for the Times Literary Review and other such publications to wake up and smell the roses: self-published books are eminently readable and people need to know about them too.

Self-Publishing and The Meaning of Success

I am after all only human and I’d like my taste of “official” success too –who wouldn’t? – but I don’t believe I fit in to the mainstream world

When I was thinking about this article, Rosy did mention “self-publishing success stories” – where a book has been self-published and then, due to its success or even due to pure luck, has been taken up by the mainstream press. G P Taylor’s Shadowmancer comes to mind, although of course there are many others.

I must admit to feeling uncomfortable with this concept of “success”. Many very good self-published novels are not taken up by big publishers and yet the strength of their voice, the quality of the writing and the excitement of the narrative still work their magic on the reader: this is my understanding of “success”.

I have been told by reviewers and readers that they cannot understand why Goldenford books are not published by the mainstream press and I have wondered myself what I would do if an offer was made for Pink Champagne and Apple Juice or Thorn in the Flesh. The answer is I simply don’t know. Yes, it would be lovely and thrilling – I am after all only human and I’d like my taste of “official” success too –who wouldn’t? – but I don’t believe I fit in to the mainstream world and I would in the end feel most uncomfortable there.

That doesn’t mean that my writing – and the writing of my fellow Goldenford directors – should not be freely available and read. I also believe that, as with increasing numbers of authors taken up by the mainstream press, my time there would not be long. Perhaps two, even three, books if you’re lucky and then the contract is not renewed and you’re on your own again. Back to the world you came from. But, thankfully, due to the honourable trade of self-publishing, that world is no longer one where the publication of your next book is impossible.

Me and JK – no airbrushing please!

There is hope.

So, there is hope. Which is perhaps a concept I’ve been working towards in the writing of this piece. I’d like to think that one day soon mainstream publishing and self-publishing will be seen for what they are: two sides of the same coin. Books published in one world will be as freely available, as freely distributable, as freely reviewable and as freely worthy of awards honour as books published in the other.

If I can end with a very much tongue-in-cheek image: when I can stand next to JK Rowling and the press take photos of us both, without airbrushing me out, then I will know that day has truly arrived.

Vulpes Libris would like to thank Anne Brooke. To read more about her, see the links below.

All About Anne!

Lisa’s review of Anne’s A Dangerous Man and Interview with Anne Brooke here on Vulpes

Anne Brooke’s website

Anne’s Blog

Goldenford, the publishers she set up with three fellow writers

Other Links of Interest

Website of Self-published author Sade Adeniran, winner of Best First Book, Africa Region in the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

More about Sade Adeniran

Other successful writer-publishers of note

Read our interview with publisher and writer Sharon Blackie of Two Ravens Press

35 comments on “Soapbox: Self-Publishing, The Unsung Novelist

  1. Anne Brooke
    April 17, 2008

    Ooh, lovely fox. I do love that fox. I think I might knit it a jumper though – it’s cold here in the writer-publisher (nice phrase!) corner …


    Thanks, Rosy – you’ve made me sound almost dynamic, you know!


  2. Nik
    April 17, 2008

    Interesting article, Anne. Best of luck with all Goldenford projects in the future.


  3. GP Taylor
    April 17, 2008

    What a great article. I fully support every comment made. There are many writers far better than me who never get a break. Success should not be measured by books sold. An author can’t pit themselves against the ‘mafia’ of on line booksellers and chains that demand BIG discounts and appear to be controlling what we read. Marketing hype dictates the books on shelves and the sooner this cartel is demolished the better.

  4. Rosy Thornton
    April 17, 2008

    Great article, Anne!

    One of my all-time favourite books was self-published: Jill Paton Walsh’s ‘Knowledge of Angels’ – with which she reached the Booker shortlist in 1994.

  5. Sam
    April 17, 2008

    Really interesting points, Anne.

    I must say i’m always surprised, when i explain to people how difficult it is to get published, that many of them suggest i do it myself, and they know nothing about the writing business – in other words, i don’t think the notion of being self-published is off-putting to your average Joe. Rather, it rankles with those you know a bit more about the biz, who tar all self-publishers with the vanity-publishing brush.

    Good for you, I say.

    Sam Casey;)


  6. rosyb
    April 17, 2008

    It’s kind of touched on here but not gone into too fully about the publisher/author. What Anne has done is set up a publishing company with a few other writers. I was asking her what advice she had about how to go about self-publishing and she said she thought this was the best model.

    Two Ravens, a newish publisher with bucket-loads of credibility (called “a quiet publishing revolution” by The Glasgow Herald and “the most talked about publisher in Scotland” by Publishing News) have published the Director Sharon Blackie’s book under their imprint. Some might call that self-publishing, although it is a different model to the usual. Certainly her book has been reviewed very well indeed.

    I think it’s one of those tainted terms and hopefully as more and more different models and ways of doing things emerge it will become less so.

    There is no actual reason why a self-published book should be worse than a mainstream published book – but maybe it is harder for the best ones to get that publicity and make their presence felt and so it is a vicious circle.

    I think the idea of a prize for a self-published book is a great one, by the way, Anne.

  7. Ariadne
    April 17, 2008

    So the problem for self-publishers is basically distribution, isn’t it? Any way this problem could be solved?
    Could self & small publishers group together to set up an Amazon-style internet site where readers could order their books?
    Does such a thing already exist?

    I’ve found that more than one person, and often Americans, when they hear I’ve got a book out, assume it is self-published. They seem to be more impressed when they hear it isn’t.

  8. Ariadne
    April 17, 2008

    The self-published novel being taken up by a mainstream publisher seems especially big in children’s publishing, for some reason.

  9. Anne Brooke
    April 17, 2008

    Gosh, thanks, people. I did assume I’d probably get more brickbats than this – or perhaps that’s because I’m having a pessimistic week this week? Anyway, thank you.

    I do really feel that the time for change is fast coming upon us in terms of the so-called “self-publishing stigma” and that, as Sam says, readers are far more liberal-minded and ready to take a chance than publishers and bookshops imagine them to be.



  10. marygm
    April 17, 2008

    Great article, Anne, written in your own inimitable style.

    BUT… and I’m going to be controversial here – how many books are too many?
    According to data from the research firm Bowker:
    “Britain, with one-fifth the population of the United States, has long been the world’s largest publisher of new books per capita in any language, but a steep decline in U.S. publication of general adult fiction and children’s books helped boost the UK’s total volume to the top English-language spot. UK publishers issued 206,000 new books in 2005.”

    And I don’t really agree with this: “readers are far more liberal-minded and ready to take a chance than publishers and bookshops imagine them to be”.
    I think readers are less and less willing to take chances with books. When you take out all the commercial bigsellers, the big award winners plus shortlisted novels and the Richard and Judy nominees that leave a very tiny proportion of sales to be shared out among all the others. The problem is that the greater the choice, the more lost people are.

  11. Anne Brooke
    April 17, 2008

    Indeed. I’d certainly get rid of some of the bland fare that comes from our big publishing houses. It’s a waste of reading time for sure!

    And perhaps people are confused as they can’t get what they want from their bookshops etc as it’s all the same as it’s always been. What we’ve found is that nobody questions our self-publishing process when they buy one of our books. Readers judge what they read on its merits entirely and not (unlike the “book world”) where it came from. In fact when people do discover our set-up, 99% of them are actually very impressed and we’ve been booked into talks/presentations (and then been able to sell more books) as a result of that.

    Hope that explains a little more!



  12. marygm
    April 17, 2008

    Yes, but who decides on what’s bland? Doesn’t it all come down to taste. Presumably all publishers think that the books they’ve chosen to publish are not bland at all.

  13. Anne Brooke
    April 17, 2008

    I’m not entirely convinced they make a value judgement at all, Mary. Quality is these days far removed from what is viewed as marketability. As a consequence and sadly, good books don’t get the marketing budget they need – even in mainstream publishers, I’m told of good mid-list authors having to trudge round their own local bookshops begging for a space on the shelves as their publisher won’t allocate them a budget.

    I also believe that if an author is successful for one or two books, then publishers will publish below-par books that author later produces as the readership will buy them anyway. For a while at least. That’s where the lack of quality/blandness factor comes in. It may also be that the reasons for this include the amount of pressure put on an author to produce more of the same and quickly for a publisher – but that’s only what I’ve heard from writing friends, so I can’t say from personal experience or anything.

    Interestingly, in Goldenford, we’ve had several approaches from commercially published authors looking to escape from the trap they’re in in terms of low allocated budgets and consequent lack of sales. Unfortunately, we can’t give them the support that they’re looking for – as we really only have enough budget and energy for the four of us. It’s all getting a bit desperate here in the quality fringes!


  14. rosyb
    April 17, 2008

    I don’t know much about this at all, but this debate put me in mind of an interesting article on Danuta Kean’s site that I was reading the other day. It’s basically about how BME (Black and Ethnic Minority readers) are catered for by the industry, with the conclusion that a lot of them end up getting their books from the US.

    She also says:

    “Marsh’s criticism reflects findings four years ago that for many within the BME community publishing does not figure as a careers not just because of perceptions that the industry is white, but because unpaid work experience – sometimes lasting six months – is a pre-requisite for anyone who wishes to enter an industry that offers low rates of pay. For graduates with loans to pay off, unpaid work followed by poor pay is not an option. The system discriminates in favour of middle class graduates whose parents are able to support them.”

    It also talks about literary fiction versus genre fiction in relation to this. Not about self-publishing, but quite interesting about markets and whether different readers are catered for.

    Sorry, crossed with lots of people. I do think there are excellent books about in the mainstream and the independent and self-publishing – and bad ones too. I don’t think it is necessarily fair to make out that self-published books, because they aren’t mainstream, are bound to be better or quality books that can’t be marketed. The problem remains how you hear about the good stuff in either sector, or how you find stuff suited to you. Not all mainstream titles have big marketing spends, after all.

    Perhaps it comes back to that ole Net Agreement Chestnut again…:)

  15. Jilly
    April 17, 2008

    I try and make a point of buying books from small publishers – like Goldenford – and from self publishers – and have come across some gems. I think the problem is probably one of distribution. and snobbery in the book world in general. It certainly isn’t publicity as there is nothing more powerful than word of mouth and personal recommendation. There is a brilliant opportunity for some enterprising soul to set up a web site to sell and distribute ALL small press and self-published books and cut out the big players in the game. How about it someone with better web skills than mine?
    Value judgments aside, I think the more books published the better as it gives people more choice. What about the success of I think the tide is about to turn thanks to things like blogs and the web in general. Great article Anne by the way.

  16. lizzysiddal
    April 17, 2008

    I read my first self-published book last year and it made my top 10 of 2007! Yes, Panama Oxbridge’s Justin Thyme is that good. All it is missing (in my house at least) is a child to read it to.

    Full review at:

    I’ve also read 2 other self-published works this year. Finished and enjoyed them both, which is more than can be said for a few unself-published novels!

    I’m off to check the Goldenford website now …..

  17. Lisa
    April 17, 2008

    Really excellent piece. I’ve come across a fair bit of self-publishing prejudice on my travels. When I’ve approached bookshops with my novel, pretty much the first question I’m asked is a very suspicious, ‘It’s not self-published, is it?’

    Mind you, being with a small publisher is not exactly received well either. I don’t know what the answer is.

    Good to have Anne here though. Might I just say, excellent excellent stats today! 🙂

  18. Anne Brooke
    April 17, 2008

    Thank you again, all! I do love that idea about a small/self-publishing site set up to bypass the Amazon blockages – that would be great!

    Though I must say I’m shocked at Rosy’s revelations about Black and Ethnic Minority groups. Is reading/publishing so much just for the white middle classes??? Something is seriously wrong in this country in that case …



  19. Ariadne
    April 17, 2008

    It’s so true about BME – and also publishing discriminates against poorer people and people who aren’t from London. When did you last meet a Black or Asian publisher who wasn’t working in a company that targets specifically Black or Asian readers? When did you last meet an agent with a broad Yorkshire accent? Rhetorical questions.
    I’d love to be proved wrong and my experience is mostly in kids’ fiction so maybe it’s not representative – someone please tell me if they think they know any different.

  20. Jackie
    April 17, 2008

    What an eye opener this was. I knew there was a certain amount of prejudice against self & small published books, but this amounts to censorship. Why should a book be legitimate just because it’s from a large publishing house? Does that make Stephen King any better of a writer? I think the opposite is often the case, that smaller runs are of better quality. I resent the fact that book sellers are limiting my options. The brick and mortar stores can say they haven’t room, but that doesn’t wash with online vendors such as Amazon.
    Glad to see that at least the readers are becoming open minded about self published books. I know it’s growing in popularity here in the US, especially in kids’ books and romances are gaining ground. There are a lot of voices out there that deserve to be heard and I’m hoping with the help of blogs and other egalitarian methods, that self publishers will soon find the recognition they deserve. It’s past due.

  21. Sharon Maria Bidwell
    April 18, 2008

    Did you know that some readers don’t understand why some writers publish with more than one publisher, let alone self-publish? I like articles such as this as it opens the readers’ eyes to the publishing industry. There’s not reason for a reader to know or care what a writer has to go through, but if they are interested, until recently they’ve been presented with the view of an author happily tapping away in front of window that displays a glorious view, perhaps of some sunny beach somewhere. They’re led to believe any and every author has a team of people running around to fulfil his or her every whim because we obviously make millions. Well, we can all dream.

    I’m keeping an open mind regarding self-publishing, and one main reason is if I want to produce something for a bit of fun, to have total control over, or if there isn’t a market suitable or one that I wish to submit to at the time. There are many reasons why self-publishing can be a good thing and I’ve read a few very well-produced self-published books, so even though I’ve worked with publishers it doesn’t mean I won’t go my own route at some point. The truth is you can write what you want or write what sells and if you’re lucky you’ll get to do a little of both. An agent or publisher is only interested in the mainstream sell — not the more difficult to market book even if it’s a great read. I’ve read a couple of your books and thoroughly enjoyed them. I love books that don’t fit into a set category. Small press seem more open to these type of reads in short stories. It’s time the novelist had the same option for diversity.

  22. Danny Rhodes
    April 18, 2008

    This is a very interesting piece and I echo a lot of what Anne and other contributors feel.

    One interesting thing not mentioned here (if I’m correct…) has to do with the look and feel of the book, the quality of the cover, the font, the presentation etc. Now I know these things shouldn’t matter but the reality is that they do. In this field, large publishers have the advantage as they can achieve higher production values. I think the challenge is to try and make your self-published book look as good as those that are not self-published. I have to say that when I pick up a book in a store I very rarely (if ever) check to see who the publisher is but if a book looks self-published (due to production) then I may begin to look for its faults (which is terrible but an unfortunate truth…) This is not to say that I don’t find faults in books from major publishers…after all it’s down to a matter of personal taste in the end.

    What’s also interesting is that by grouping together with other writers, Anne has effectively started her own publishing house and become an independent publisher…

  23. Danny Rhodes
    April 18, 2008

    PS I didn’t insert the smilies!!!

  24. Anne Brooke
    April 18, 2008

    But the smilies are nice anyway! Yes, production is very important, and in Goldenford we try to make sure that the end product is as professional looking as possible.

    Obviously we’ve made our mistakes but we now work regularly with two first-class book artists (the wonderful Penelope Cline being one of them – she even did the cover for “A Dangerous Man”, one of my small press books). We also work with a very good printer, Antony Rowe, who have bucket-loads of experience in book production. These contacts are worth their weight in gold, and I can thoroughly recommend them.

    Ooh, and thanks for the support, Sharon – lovely to see you on here!


  25. Tris
    April 18, 2008

    I always feel rather sad when I hear the ‘too many books published ‘ argument – how can there ever be – too many books?

    I think with the internet and a global village that the days when the select few could decide what the masses should read are declining fast – and if the big publishers don’t wake up and put their houses in order they will go the same way as the record companies.

    Kudos to Anne and her fellow directors for their vision and commitment – there are precedents – United Artists and Bloomsbury, anyone?

    I think Goldenford is the way of the future.

    As for The Gawain Quest – pay day next week and I intend to treat myself 🙂

  26. Anne Brooke
    April 18, 2008

    Ooh, thanks, Tris (I know who you are now!) – you’ll love Gawain. It rocks. And I do think I agree that there really can’t be too many books. Though I suspect that these days that might be a minority view? For me it’s much like saying there’s too much air to breathe.

    Though I suppose we do have to get the recycling right.



  27. lizzysiddal
    April 18, 2008

    “As for The Gawain Quest – pay day next week and I intend to treat myself”

    I already did!

  28. Anne Brooke
    April 18, 2008

    Hope you enjoy it, Lizzy – it’s a fabulous read!



  29. cartooncat
    April 21, 2008

    Great article – thank you.

    I can also echo what the others have said – there’s a lot of prejudice about self published books. It’s virtually impossible to get distribution in normal bookshops (though that’s more to do with the no returns policy of print-on-demand publishers I think). So you’re pretty much limited to Amazon and a few of its white label online store-fronts to sell through.

    I too have always been delighted whenever I’ve found a self-published gem.

    One idea for readers here… if you do find a self-published book you really like, do make the effort to review it, mention it on your blog, tell a friend or whatever you can. After all… the legions of self-published writers don’t have the advantage of anyone else marketing on their behalf. So they really do depend totally on their readers.

  30. Anne Brooke
    April 26, 2008

    Well said, Cartooncat – I can only agree!!




  31. Pingback: Getting published…more painful than childbirth? «

  32. lonelysealonelysky
    July 24, 2008

    “And perhaps people are confused as they can’t get what they want from their bookshops etc as it’s all the same as it’s always been.”

    I guess it’s just like the music industry. The big labels pump out the same manufactured artists time and time again, covering the same songs and topics time and time again, to the same music time and time again, etc. They wonder why people aren’t as interested but the truth is right there, staring them in the face. Bring us something that we haven’t already bought.

    If I reach book 3 and have still not been published, I’ll consider self publishing but I want establish a good internet presence by then, so I have people to help me promote it. If I get taken on by a big publisher and strike the jackpot, I’ll remember to promote self-published authors. Hopefully others will use their fame to do the same.

  33. Flo
    October 24, 2008

    Great article and so many great points already made. I think self-publishers need an online presence since they can’t reach their potential readers via traditional routes. Word of mouth is key, because their is so much choice, most of my books are bought on recommendation, I don’t have time to wade through the bland ones. I will definitely be visiting Anne’s website next.

    PS: Things are changing because there are 2 self-published books long listed for the World Book Day campaign. One I’ve never heard of and the other inspired this article.

  34. Kathy K.
    September 23, 2010

    This article may be 2 years old but is still just as relevant today. Great points in the article and the comments.

  35. Helene Pascal
    May 2, 2012

    Where has my first long reply gone? Can I retrieve it?

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