Why I Chose to Self-Publish

June 16, 2014 | By | 20 Replies More

jessicamarkwellI’m sure there are some who write entirely for themselves, but most of us do so for other people. But how do you get your words turned into a book, so that your story can be shared?

The traditional route was to attract an agent. He or she would then go on to find a publisher. Self-publishing was referred to as ‘vanity’ publishing: the name says it all. But in 1994 an online bookstore was founded.

Since then, Amazon has changed the face of the industry by providing all publishing houses with the same platform. The word ‘vanity’ has been replaced by ‘indie’ and self-publishing has become   respectable. Here’s how I came to make the choice.

Ten years ago, I was studying for an MA at Middlesex University, and after a showcase of students’ work I met a young agent, whom I’ll call Tim. The novel I was then writing – part of it for my dissertation – was set in the Thames Valley. It explored the changing relationships of a family, when the parents and their teenage children were harassed by a mysterious stranger. Tim told me how much he’d enjoyed my reading. He added, however, that I needed ‘a big story.’

Five years later, I recalled Tim’s words. I had opened a wicker box which once belonged to my great great grandfather. Inside, I found a packet of letters from the 1860s, which indicated that my triple-great grandfather Alexander Stephen – the wealthy founder of a shipyard on the River Clyde – was being blackmailed by one of his sons.

I found out more about Alexander and his children, and learned that his youngest daughter – my great great aunt Mina – had married a medical missionary called James Stewart. In 1866, when Mina was just 18 years old, the couple had travelled to a place called Lovedale in South Africa. There, they turned a small mission into a thriving settlement, with ‘no distinction of race, colour or sect.’

James campaigned successfully for Africans to have access to higher education,  and founded the University of Fort Hare. He also opened up Lake Nyassa (now Lake Malawi) to legitimate trade, as a way of fighting slavery. But his reputation was damaged by a too-close relationship with Mary Livingstone, wife of the explorer. It was understandable that Mary fell for James;  the missionary had wit, charm and good looks – qualities inherited by his great great grandson, the actor, Hugh Grant.

Dappled Light

Dappled Light

The Stewarts’ lives encompassed adventure, idealism, and intrigue. I had found my big story. But how to present it? I wanted to explore the characters of James and Mina, and record the challenges they faced. I wanted to set the novel firmly in the context of the Victorian era, showing the contrasting lives of the rich and poor, whilst Darwinism caused religious doubt to ripple through society. I also wanted to illustrate the suffering caused by the slave trade in Africa.

I decided to adopt four different narratives: those of James, the teenage Mina, a fictional herdsman called Lokim, and a seamstress called Chrissy Hogarth, whose name I retrieved from the 1860s batch of letters. I chose to use the present tense. By so doing, I could avoid the cynical re-interpretation of history, and allow James Stewart to hold his ideals undimmed.

Dappled Light  preoccupied me for the next three years. I went to the library of Glasgow University, where the archives of Alexander Stephen are held, and together with my husband, I went to South Africa. We visited Lovedale, and admired the thriving university at Fort Hare. Back home, I felt I was gifted with serendipitous pieces of information; it was as if the creative muse was behind my shoulder, nudging me to take this path, not that.

Dappled Light was almost finished when I went to a conferencerun by @writersworkshop. Unexpectedly, I met up with Tim. I told him about my novel. He was enthusiastic, and asked me to send him the completed book. ‘It is ALL beautifully written’ he emailed me. But then he emailed again, wanting a major re-write.

I considered taking his advice, but when I’d finished the novel, I’d felt as a mathematician must feel when a complex equation has finally worked out. Fact and fiction had been so carefully mixed to build up to an appropriate ending. Tim, I reflected, was visualising a different kind of book.

Have you seen Richard Curtis’s film About Time? The hero enjoys time-travel, but he can’t go too far backwards because he would then have different children, and that’s a choice he can’t make. I felt the same way about Dappled Light. One agent had already suggested that I use just one narrative – that of the African. Another had said I should forget fiction, and write James Stewart’s biography. There were an infinite number of possible ways of retelling my   ‘big story,’ but I’d given my heart, energy and conviction to Dappled Light, as I’d already written it.

So Tim and I parted ways. I didn’t look for another agent. I thought there was no point in sending out more submissions, if I wasn’t prepared to adapt the novel.

I published Dappled Light through Matador, in November 2013. Was it right to self-publish? Maybe, maybe not, but it was the only decision I could make.

Jessica Markwell was born in Ghana in 1954. After graduating from Manchester University with a degree in Medieval Studies, she worked as an archaeologist, a nurse, a midwife and a family mediator. She completed an MA in fiction writing at Middlesex University, and now lives high on a hillside in mid-Wales with her husband and two chocolate Labradors.

Find out more about her on her website www.jessicamarkwell.com and follow her on twitter @JessicaMarkwel1







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Category: By Current and Past Sponsors, Contemporary Women Writers, On Publishing

Comments (20)

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  1. Tam May says:

    Nice points, except for one – vanity publishing is NOT now called indie publishing! They are two very different things. Vanity publishing was all about the author paying someone to publish their work. Indie publishing, for most self-published authors, is about the author doing most or all of the publishing tasks himself/herself to get his/her book out. They are very different. Even when an author pays for certain services (such as a freelance editor to edit the book or a graphic designer to design the book cover), it’s a completely different situation than an author paying a publisher to publish his/her book. Vanity publishing has a lot of negative connotations as well. Not just the issue of a “vain” person wanting to see their work in print, but also the idea of throwing good money after bad, since vanity publishers were all about scamming authors, taking money to produce cheap-looking books and do no promotion of it at all (even though they usually promised the moon). Indie authors work very very hard to get their books out and that includes not just getting it published (either in ebook or hybrid format) but also after it is published in promoting and marketing it.

    Sorry to go off like this, but to imply that vanity publishing is now called indie publishing and a little more respectful than it was is an insult to the hard work that independent authors (who are also publishers) do.


  2. Rosina Lippi says:

    Hi Jessica. The history of how you came to write your novel and then to self publish is one that aspiring novelists should read to get a sense of how the industry is changing. I see why you made the decision you made, but I want to suggest something for you to consider. Two things about Tim strike me as important: he saw the value in your writing, but he didn’t see the value — or not the whole value — in the story. You were right to part ways, because if an agent doesn’t love the story s/he can’t sell it.

    But you might have been surprised by the reaction from other possible agents. The fact that Tim saw so much potential in the manuscript raises the odds that other agents will want to have a look. A lot of agents these days are female, and it’s entirely possible that a female agent would have seen the value of the story the way you wrote it. You might have found (might still find, if you ever decide to pursue this) someone who is in tune with what you are trying to do.

    I ‘ve gone the more traditional route. I have an agent who really believes in what I write — she’s sold ten novels to major houses for me — and I know she’s got my back. Many times she has solved problems that looked insurmountable to me, and she’s done that with a firm but graceful hand.

    One more point about the traditional route: a good editor is an excellent thing. I have never run across a piece of work that wasn’t improved by a thoughtful, experienced editor. Some writers see editors as the enemy. I think that’s a shame, because an editor can save you from your own follies. Dog knows mine have done it for me more than once.

    So I wish you best of luck with this novel and whatever else you write down the road, whatever way you decide to move ahead. But don’t give up yet on the idea of an agent. Because Tim didn’t get it doesn’t mean there’s not somebody else out there eager and able to lead you through the quicksand that is publishing.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a considered response and for your encouragement.
      A year on from when I wrote that piece, I agree. It might well have been better for me to have looked for another agent, or I could have sought advice from a literary consultancy. There’s still prejudice around works that are self-published – more so, I think, in the world of literary fiction than for genres such as romance.
      Dappled Light has had some excellent reviews and enough readers have said that they love the book for me to feel that my instincts weren’t wrong in wanting to keep the basic structure. But I also agree with you that a good editor can be very helpful, and I’m sure my writing could be improved with guidance.
      The truth is, I self-published because I could, and at the time that felt right. Self-publication has given me validation as a writer, but – despite selling hundreds of copies of Dappled Light – it hasn’t given me a profit, so it is not a route I would choose again.
      Congratulations, Rosina, on your own success. I’m off tomorrow on a canal holiday and I’m planning to order one of your historical novels as soon as I get back.
      all good wishes

  3. nicole quinn says:

    I understand completely. I too am a self published author, but I’ve come to the decision for different, though equally valid, reasons. I have enjoyed reading your story, so much so, that I have purchased your book. I look forward to the journey.

    In fact, I’ve purchased several books based on the narratives I’ve found on this site. What a great resource!

    • Thank you Nicole, for your understanding and for buying my book. If when you’ve read it, there’s anything you’d like to discuss please do contact me.
      Good luck with your own writing career – love your website!

  4. Jessica:

    My own experience was much the same. I discovered, after years of pounding the traditional publishing pavement, that EVERYONE involved wants you to write a different story. There seem to be few who didn’t. And as a writer, particularly if you’ve taken the time to really learn the craft, enough to craft a thoughtfully plotted, beautifully rendered story with a compelling arc and great characters, you’re too often asked asked to sublimate your gut sense of things to reconfigure to THEIR gut sense of things. When you’re trying to create commerce for your book, it can get confusing, especially because there IS an art to sorting out what’s good critique (needed) and what’s them telling you to write their version of the story (very NOT needed!).

    But ultimately you have to trust your gut and for those of us who did, the return is immeasurable. Mostly, it’s that you delivered the EXACT book you wanted and that, right there, is worth it all!

    Good luck to you and thanks for reminding us all, once again, to listen loudest to your own voice!

  5. B R I G I D says:

    This piece resonated deeply, primarily because to a certain extent, it mirrored my own experience and stands testimony to just how much industry perceptions and attitudes have radically changed. Now, self-publishing has achieved the credibility it deserves. Afterall, many roads lead to Rome – the journey is different but the destination the same.

    It was fascinating to read how her very personal story developed. But for me, it was the last sentence that was by far the most powerful – my interpretation was if it’s the right decision for you, then it’s the right decision.

    I’m convinced this piece will continue to enlighten others as it has done for me, and do so for a very long time to come.

  6. Tatjana van der Krabben says:

    I can understand completely. I’m not prepared to take an entirely different approach either and want the story I’m working on told as it is. I’m not even considering looking for an agent anymore. Your experiences only strengthen that feeling.

  7. Joanne Yeck says:

    Jessica, Many thanks for sharing your process and for reminding us that there are always myriad ways to tell the same story. Once committed to an approach, our job is to make that version the best it can be.

  8. Cairenn Rhys says:

    Excellent. I love reading the journey of the author. I, too, self-published. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew in the core of my being it was the way to go. I never looked back. I self-published twice more and will do so again. Faith, trust and gumption. 🙂

  9. Ruth2Day says:

    what a lovely story. I live in Cape Town SA, and always find myself drawn to anything that refers to this wonderful place. I was also intrigued by your ancestor James Stewart and googled him, my word what an interesting man

  10. Lani says:

    Wow. What an amazing story. And what luck to have those letters. Good for you. I can feel your struggle to go with your gut and self-publish. I think in the end though, you can feel good about going with what you feel and not what others think. Cheers 🙂

    • Thank you Lani. I do feel I was gifted with those letters. I was lucky too, that a cousin was able to give me more facts about Alexander Stephen’s 18 children. Mina’s brother Sam went to China, one brother-in-law took a convict ship to Australia, while another wove a carpet for the White House. So many possible stories!

  11. Thank you Jilly – and all the best to you, too!

  12. And thank goodness you followed your heart! I am at that point with my children’s book right now and need all the self belief and faith you have. All the best to you.

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