My career was in advertising, where I worked as an illustrator. When I stopped work to have my son, I wanted something I could do at home. Believing it would be easy, I started writing a romance for Mills & Boon. I may have been misguided, but at least I finished that book. My rejection from Mills & Boon swiftly followed, but undeterred I continued to send my manuscript of ‘Just Before Dawn’, one at a time, to a list of publishers. In hindsight I find it astonishing that within four months of writing ‘the end’, I had interest from a new publisher. It was the eighth I tried.
At the time characterised as the “thinking woman’s Mills & Boon”, ‘Love Stories’ was a one woman band. Anne Dewe was looking for un-clichéd stories about women and relationships, with a love-theme at their core which need not be conventionally romantic. My book fitted the bill. Just Before Dawn went through its fair share of editing before publication. Now, feeling full of confidence, I let my hair down and wrote the novel of my heart. Desires & Dreams, also published by Love Stories, revisited the darker world of my teenage imagination. In it I subverted the ‘romance’ stereotypes. I was allowed to design my own covers.
It was the end of an era when publishing was a gentlemanly profession; the premises would be in the old parts of London - dark dusty offices, accessed by many flights of stairs, or those old clanky lifts with concertina metal doors - on the top floors of rabbit-warren buildings. Publishers then were relatively small concerns, they were in the business for the love of books. They were willing to bring writers on and nurture them, allowing them to find their voice and their readership. But it was also a time when the bestseller list was filled with brick-sized block-busters, which sold in shed-loads. Suddenly publishing was ‘hot’. There were amalgamations, flotations and takeovers, and what had been small UK based concerns became vast international companies. The men and women who had been in the business for love not money were either eased out of this brave new world or they were sidelined and had to fight their corner against the real power in the companies, the moneymen. What became important in all this was not the writer, but the bottom line. My own publisher shut up shop after a few years of battering her head against brick walls. She couldn’t get the marketing, promotion or distribution necessary for the success of her business or her writers.
And so started the next phase of my life. The need to find a new publisher coincided with my move from Surrey to Gloucestershire. For a while I did what I’d done in the past - sending the complete manuscript to publishers, but back it would come, with only the first few pages riffled, and with the advice to find a literary agent. Although I soon learned the lesson of only submitting the first 3 chapters + synopsis to a researched list of likely agents, it did not produce the result I hoped for. That I was a published author held no sway; quite the reverse I suspect. My association with a failed publisher looked more like a millstone. I began to accept that the world had changed and I went from complacency to depression.
Since those days, as we all know, the business of publishing has continued to change and not necessarily for the better. With the loss of the net book agreement, books could and were being discounted to the point where very little profit was being made for anyone other than Amazon, or the supermarkets, businesses that are able either to make their profit from the vast quantities sold, or that can regard the top ten paperbacks as loss leaders. Poor authors are the smallest cog in the wheel, it seems. Even well established writers have to keep up their sales figures, book after book. It has become ever harder for the new writer - which, to all intents and purposes, is what I am - to win a contract. Publishers become increasingly risk averse, even more focused on the bottom line, even more determined to find the next Sophie Kinsella or the next celebrity to hang a book on. I felt that I was ploughing a lonely furrow. I didn’t want to be the next anyone. I wanted to be the first Gilli Allan.
I was already considering whether there might be a benefit for me with the advent of the E-book, when my husband bought me a Kindle, for Christmas, 2010. I had heard about other writers self-publishing their back-list to Amazon Kindle. I had a back catalogue on which all rights had reverted a long time ago, so I began to look into how to do this. There was a problem, however. I’d written those books on an old fashioned ‘sit up and beg’ Olivetti. To convert them into files on my PC I would need to scan them into editable text, but I don’t have an OCR programme. Not an insurmountable problem but, on reflection, wouldn’t those two books be terribly old fashioned? These days, even a ‘contemporary’ story written 5 years ago can seem out of date
I then discovered there was nothing to stop writers self-publishing original work through Kindle Direct Publishing. I knew people who had done this. Having just received yet another, and to my mind ‘last chance saloon’ rejection for my book TORN - a book I love and really believe in - I decided that the only way I could share it with the rest of the world would be through self-publishing. I looked up the KDP instructions but found them incomprehensible. Even a programme called Scrivener, which I’d heard could be used as a tool to self-E-publish, required an understanding of HTML code. None of it made any sense to me. My grumbles on ROMNA - the Romantic Novelists’ Association e-loop - prompted several helpful replies. The source book didn’t need to be in HTML, I was told. Amazon-Kindle will publish, as long as the text is in the proper format, with automatic page-breaks inserted at chapter ends, automatic indents set up, and a justified page layout. The advice included instructions for creating a cover.
It took me over a month to delete the old formatting and reformat as instructed. I guessed there were methods of doing this automatically, but remember I am a technophobe AND dyslexic, so I did it line by line. And then I had to check it all. Eventually I believed I’d removed all the old formatting from my text and reformatted it all, as instructed. I created a copy-write page, an acknowledgements page and a dedication to my son. Last but not least I created my cover. This was fun, even though I only have the basic MS Paint programme. I used my own photograph, cropping it and altering the colours. I added the lettering in ‘paint’, and then saved to ‘my pictures’ library.
Following the advice I’d been given I then prepared the cover. It had to be saved as a PDF. When it opened in my ‘Adobe reader’, I copied the image and pasted it into the ‘paint’ programme. I needed to right-click to remove the selection rectangle, and saved it as a JPEG. I then gave the file a unique name which I could identify when browsing for it. Naming the correct file was very important as, by this time I’d created many inferior versions, and I’m easily muddled. There was a very real danger of uploading the wrong one unless I was very careful.
The KDP Amazon site http://kdp.amazon.com/ where you upload your book, is self-explanatory, even for me. But in typical dyslexic fashion, I managed to miss a stage or two, and clicked ‘PUBLISH’ too soon. When TORN went ‘Live’ on April 1st, 2011, I was tremendously excited – until I discovered that the cover image on Amazon was miniscule, the price was too high (I’d not allowed for VAT), the downloaded book had no cover attached to it, and the formatting was all over the place! I unpublished.
After my corrections, I uploaded again – previewing the book this time. I’d managed to attach the cover on this occasion, but the layout remained unacceptably erratic. It seemed that I had either not stripped out all of the old formatting, as I thought I had, and/or the book should have been converted to HTML after all. After many frustrating hours sourcing free HTML conversion programmes to download, and failing to get any of them to work, I complained to ROMNA again. I had been typically stupid. Saving work in HTML is easy with Word7. If you click ‘Save As’, then choose the ‘Webpage’ option, this creates an HTML version of your document. So far so good, but in this format my book would not upload to Kindle with the cover attached!
I won’t describe every subsequent trauma. Suffice to say, the peerless Freda Lightfoot, multi-published member of the RNA, came to my rescue, again through another appeal to ROMNA. There are two free downloads called MobipocketCreator and MobipocketReader. The first of these programmes would put my HTML text together with my cover and ‘build’ it into a book. The second would allow me to look at the finished product before going further. Then, when I returned to my Kindle page and browsed my PC for the correct file, she told me I would find it in ‘My Publications’, in the Documents Library. True to her word, there it was! The named folder contained 4 files. I selected the PRC file and uploaded it to Kindle, where I previewed it again, before clicking ‘publish’. Success.
Kindle is not the only e-reader available, of course, and now that I had the bit between my teeth, I decided to publish to Smashwords, which allows the downloading of your book to some of these alternative devices. In many ways, I wish I had done this before the KDP experience. The instructions for formatting a book for uploading to Smashwords are longer, but are much more simply expressed. The explanations are stage by stage, with images of the computer page you will need to be on and what or where you need to tick or untick - for someone like me, invaluable. As I still wasn’t entirely happy with the way my book looked on Kindle - the formatting was still a bit irregular and idiosynchratic in places - I actually re-uploaded to KDP once I had put my book through the Smashwords process. I now feel like a professional ‘E-publisher’. One of the symptoms of dyslexia, however, is a poor memory, and I only hope I can remember what to do next time!
Of course, publication is only the beginning of the process of getting your book to the public. Selling it is a whole different ball-game. It would require another article to describe how I try to raise the profile of TORN above the myriad other e-books available. It is slow and time consuming, and you have to train yourself to be brazen.
I cannot follow any kind of a formula in my writing, which is probably why I have remained unpublished since 1987. Love may be the engine of the plot (not that my characters are necessarily aware of this) but I try not to romanticise. TORN is a contemporary story, which faces up to the complexities, messiness and absurdities in modern relationships. Life is not a fairy tale; it can be confusing and difficult. Sex is not always awesome; it can be awkward and embarrassing, and it has consequences. You don't always fall for Mr Right, even if he falls for you. And realising you're in love is not always good news. It can make the future look daunting......
Gilli's third book 'Torn' can be found on Amazon and Smashwords: