Pen-name – help or hindrance?

[First posted on Goodreads January 2014]

Sam Kates is a pseudonym. When I first decided to self-publish a collection of short stories almost a year and a half ago, it wasn’t a question of whether to use a pen-name; only which pen-name to choose.

Life is full of unexpected contradictions. Here’s one that some writers may recognise. I deeply desire making a living from writing fiction – to be paid to do what I most enjoy, thus freeing me to do it more… It must be like the starry-eyed schoolboy who signs a professional football contract and suddenly finds himself sharing a changing room with his heroes. Yet that dream can become reality for a writer at almost any stage of his or her life. I’m way past the age where Liverpool would be interested in me (even – in my dreams – were I good enough), but at 49 I’m not too old to become successful as a writer. And yet, I have no desire to seek the limelight, to become even moderately famous – not as me, the real me anyway.

So here’s that contradiction (no, I hadn’t forgotten): I want to be a successful author of fiction, yet I don’t seek fame. Hmm… becoming successful in most fields of the arts requires the artist to become well-known. In the field of literature, this means the author’s name has to become familiar to readers. There are way too many indie authors out there – the more well-known a writer’s name becomes, the more visible he or she will be among the milling masses. To use a more business-like expression: it’s about building a brand. So, success without a modicum of fame? Ain’t going to happen.

Going with a pseudonym was, therefore, a non-brainer. There were other reasons, such as being the sort of reserved person hopeless at blowing his own trumpet (it’s a lot easier to promote Sam Kates than it would to be to promote me), but the overriding one was to impose a degree of separation between writing and my private life.

By and large, then, having a pen-name has been a help. Today, for the first time, it became a hindrance. The local newspaper had agreed to run a feature about my new apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing. The reporter who interviewed me e-mailed this afternoon to say that his senior editors would only publish the piece on condition that they used my real name. After a little soul-searching, I told him that I didn’t want to proceed under that condition. Some of you might be thinking, “Fool! You’ve just given up some free advertising!” and you’d be right. My publishers, when they find out, may be displeased, though I think (hope) they’ll understand. But I’m certain I’ve made the correct call.

Not that my real name is a great secret. Anyone who knows me knows I write under the name Sam Kates. Anyone with a little computer savvy who can be bothered could probably find my real name online within minutes. But given what I said above about why I used a pen-name in the first place, to start announcing my real name to the world (or at least this small part of it on the edge of the South Wales valleys) seems self-defeating and more than a little hypocritical. If that means I’m going to miss out on promotional opportunities, (with apologies to my publishers) so be it. I’ll just have to work harder at other methods of promotion and, more importantly, writing books that readers find entertaining.

Hindrance or not, Sam Kates is rolling up his sleeves…

Adventures in Self-Publishing

Long before I had my own website, I posted a couple of articles about self-publishing to a friend’s blog, under the pseudonym Johnny Luv – don’t ask. Since I’m starting this blog from scratch, thought I might as well reproduce those articles here – if you can’t engage in a spot of self-indulgence on your own website, then where can you?

Here’s the first, originally posted around October 2012:

Walking on Eggshells – Adventures in Self-Publishing

So, I wrote a bundle of short stories and a couple of novels. Some of the short stories were published in small press magazines. Many more were rejected. I accumulated a file of rejections for the novels from agents and publishers. They say that a writer needs a thick skin; well, mine wasn’t thick enough. I gave up.

Then the Kindle and the e-book self-publishing revolution came along. I didn’t even notice. Until I received a Kindle last Christmas. Even then, it took me months to appreciate the opportunities that were now open to a writer with a collection of scribblings sitting on the hard drive of his computer.

In August, I bundled ten short stories together into a collection that I named after one of the stories: Pond Life. Taking a deep breath, I published the collection for the Kindle on Amazon under a pseudonym. Once I’d worked out how to format the book, it was a doddle. It even has a professional cover designed by a kindly artist in return for a credit on the inside and a link to her website on my Facebook page.

Okay. My book was there, but then what was I supposed to do? I’ve read that there are in excess of a million self-published books on Amazon alone. There are numerous other self-publishing sites. How does an unknown become noticed in that sort of crowd?

I visited the Amazon discussion forums (or fora, if you’d prefer). There are a bewildering number, containing a bewildering number of threads, many of which contain tens of thousands of comments (posts). Daunting does not do it justice. I spent hour upon hour reading through threads, skimming thousands of posts, seeking advice on how to promote my book.

There’s a heck of a lot of advice out there. Not all of it good. But I managed to extract what I felt to be the worthy advice: join in discussions on the forums, have your own website, publish more books, join the Amazon programme that allows limited free book promotions.

Well, I joined the programme and have held one free promotional day thus far. Around sixty free copies of my book were downloaded, most in the States. That’s not many, but I learned a lot and should do better next time. I don’t yet have my own website, but have registered a domain name; it’s a start. And I’m rewriting the first novel (it was written over ten years ago and a rewrite is much needed) with the aim of publishing it in December. So that just leaves the forums. And that’s where the allusion to walking on eggshells comes in.

The Amazon Discussion Forums are essentially divided into two parts: those where writers can promote their work and those where they can’t. And woe betide a writer who self-promotes in the wrong forum. The outcome can be carnage. Some readers keep NRA lists (Never Read Authors). It has been known for authors to have their books subjected to scathing reviews from reviewers disgruntled at what an author has posted on the forums. Even mentioning that you are a writer in the wrong place can lead to withering attacks.

Not that all authors behave professionally. There are threads devoted to the antics of what are labelled BBA (Badly Behaving Authors). Sometimes this label is deserved.

So do I regret jumping headlong into the shark-infested self-publishing sea? Not for one moment. It’s been fun and exciting and I’ve ‘met’ some friendly and talented people in cyberspace. I’ve had a short story featured on another author’s website. I’ve had the same story published in an anthology that, as I write this, is in the top 100 Science-fiction Anthologies. Someone even wants to interview me for her blog. It may not be much, but it’s a start and I’m hungry for more.

Now to get that first novel published…

[Update, July 2018: The Amazon Discussion Forums bit the dust in October 2017. I miss them – not the ones inhabited by frothing-at-the-mouth, self-appointed custodians of the internet, ready to pounce upon anyone who – gasp! – admits they’re a writer, but the ones where like-minded people, readers and writers, could come together and discuss books and anything else that took their fancy.

The breathless reference to over a million self-published books on Amazon gives me a wry smile – last I looked, there were in excess of five million Kindle books available; not all of them self-published, of course, but I’m willing to bet the proportion is significantly high, in excess of three-quarters. And I wondered how to gain visibility back then…]

Here’s the second article, originally posted around April 2013:

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Second and Final Part

So I did it: went against the accepted wisdom that goes something like, “Whatever you do, never publish the first novel you write. Ever.” Not that I think I know better – I sometimes think I know less than very little – but I revisited that first novel after a ten-year break and found that there was something there that readers might like. Sure, it has its shortcomings, but I felt I had nothing to lose.

It was fortunate that I was able to lay my hands on a copy. After accumulating all those rejection slips from London agents and publishers, I had deleted the novel from my computer in a fit of pique. I’d printed a copy, but we moved house five years ago and things have gone missing. But, luckily for me, not the novel. The long process of retyping it onto the computer gave me the opportunity to revise and tighten the prose, and I ended up with a 64,000-word story. Quite short for a novel, but about the right length, I felt, for a debut. At least readers wouldn’t have much time to become bored. I gave it a title: The Village of Lost Souls.

Christmas was approaching by the time I finished the rewrite and final proofreads. Deciding that life is too short to read it through again – there has to come a point when you say, ‘Enough’s enough; publish and be damned!’ – I took another deep breath and pressed the ‘publish’ button. Then I sat back and waited. (Actually, that’s not quite true. I had to do all the usual self-promoting stuff discussed in my earlier post on this topic. Then I sat back and waited.)

I had to wait almost three weeks for the first feedback. I expected reviews that were middle-of-the-road, neither loving nor hating; if I could average a three-star rating, I would be happy. The first review stunned me; the reviewer said, “I absolutely loved this book. Loved it!” More reviews in a similar vein followed. The lowest rating so far is three stars. I still can’t quite believe the strength of emotion the story evokes. I set out to write a ghost story; I seem to have ended up with something more.

But for all its positive reviews, the book is floundering under the sheer volume of competition. It barely sells. My efforts at self-promotion are, frankly, feeble. I’m not very good at it and never will be. I have no idea how to reach the readership that I have to believe is out there waiting to discover my books.

Maybe now I won’t have to find out how. Something amazing happened totally out of the blue about two weeks ago: I was contacted by a publisher. A small, independent publisher based in Florida, that had read both my books, felt they deserved to sell a lot more than they currently are selling and offered to publish and market them. My excitement was tempered by wariness. I’ve read so many sorry tales of aspiring authors being taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous, so-called publishers who make money by charging the writer exorbitant fees for editing, cover-design and marketing, then price the books at such ridiculously-high prices that nobody buys them, forcing the writer to pay through the nose to buy back the book’s rights.

I awaited the contract with a knot in my stomach – if it contained such terms, I would be compelled to reject it: my big chance, perhaps my only chance, gone. To my astonishment, it didn’t. For a complete unknown like me, it seemed perfectly reasonable (apart from one clause that the publisher readily agreed to amend to something I was happy with). So I signed.

Hence the reason I’ve called this the “…Final Part.” I can drop the ‘self’ from ‘self-published author’. Still pinching myself…

[Update, July 2018: I clearly recall the excitement I felt at being approached by a publisher, like a child first learning about Christmas. Sadly, it didn’t work out quite as either of us had planned and we parted company in March this year. Thus, my titling this piece ‘Final Part’ turned out to be premature – I’m self-publishing again and all the happier for it.

The last few months have seen me negotiating learning curves so steep they’re vertical, with overhangs, and given me enough material for umpteen posts about the publishing process. If self-publishing concerns you, pop back from time to time – there will be the occasional article you might find of interest. And don’t be afraid to leave a comment. It’ll be good to see you.]