Digital democracy: How to hack it as an e-book writer

John Dale reveals how journalists can take a leaf out of EL Leonard's book and make it as an e-book author

When I walked to the train station last week, I pricked up my ears for the sound of locking handcuffs, clanking chains and accompanying sighs, whimpers and moans. I was passing the most alarming suburban semi in my neighbourhood.

I’ve no idea whether I’ve sat next to Erika Leonard (better known as EL James) in the Brentford Tandoori or at the bar in the Brewery Tap. All I do know is that she has provoked some wild fantasies, which I am now attempting to fulfil.

They have nothing to do with the content of her erotic blockbusters – Fifty Shades of Grey etc. – and everything to do with, (if I may get so personal) her bottom line.

It was through self-publishing that Leonard kicked off before selling zillions and becoming more than just a Brentford mum of two. And for humbler hacks, she is wish-fulfilment made heaving flesh.

When I packed it in as a magazine editor 18 months ago, people asked me if I was going to write a book. About what? Another Memoir Of The Unknown Hack? Boring. I’d better things to do.

Anyway I had got that book thing out of my system twice, in 1976 and 1986, and recalled it with mixed feelings. Agents! Publishers! Foreign rights! Serialisations! I’d take a rain check, thank you.

Then, on 28 January this year, I had an idea. For a book!

At that point I should have popped round to EL James and asked for a good thrashing.

Instead I put together the first chapter and a synopsis and took it to an agent. He called me 15 minutes after receiving it. Even as he spoke, a lightbulb switched on in my head and I thought: ‘Yes, I can see why you’re hesitating... and that gives me another idea.’

Three years earlier, I’d bought a Kindle e-reader and started carrying around a library of books, newspapers and magazines in my inside pocket. I went on about it so much that people thought I was on the Amazon payroll.

I’d also noticed that it offered new opportunities.

As the agent explained his doubts, I decided there and then that I would work for the one publisher who’d never say no to me. Myself.

So when the call ended I started on what we like to call ‘a journey’.

I got to work on stage one, writing the book.

John Dale

At the same time I began to read up about stage two, self-publishing, not to be confused with that old racket, ‘vanity publishing’.

It broke into two parts: e-books and PODs.

E-books are books published electronically to be read on screen on the Kindle, iPad, the Nook and mobile phones.

PODs are actual books, pages wrapped inside a jacket, but are Print On Demand. Single copies are printed individually as they are ordered over the internet, and delivered so fast that most purchasers don’t realise they do not come from stock. You may have some on your shelf right now without knowing it.

PODs are produced through Amazon’s CreateSpace or its rival, Lightning Source, on their own UK printing presses.

With both e-books and PODs, there are virtually no upfront costs.

With e-books, you get up to 70 per cent of the sales price. With PODs the percentage is less, but still more than you’d probably receive from a conventional publisher.

As for content, they don’t really concern themselves. They reason that if it’s rubbish, it will sit quietly in their computer and then get wiped. If it sells, they will take their cut.

So this meant that I could tap away at my keyboard, assured that my work would be published one way or other, whether by public demand or not.

So I tap-tapped away and after 18 weeks, I had a 90,000 word manuscript entitled 24 Hours in Journalism. One Day. One Million Stories.

Progress!

But with autonomy comes self-reliance. I had no book editor to fall back on. I used journalist friends but that was not the same.

So I Googled ‘proof-reader’ and chose someone almost at random. Her fee was £550 and over the next three weeks she fed back corrections and amendments.

She was entirely competent but I did wonder how she could do it at £6 per thousand words. I now think she should have charged more and been much tougher. Anyway, that became irrelevant because I decided to do a rewrite.

At the same time I needed a book jacket. All the websites said this was incredibly important. I wanted it to look newsy and Shutterstock offered 25 photos for £139. Deal!

I hired an old art colleague, Stuart Bartlett, to do the design.

At the same time I contacted a company which converted manuscripts into formats for e-books, at £160, and PODs, at £125.

You can do this yourself but it’s not easy. One computer is called ‘the meatgrinder’, because it mangles and maims text. I entrusted it to a third party.

The e-book conversion took place and at the end of July, my text was published, first on Kindle and then on Apple’s iBooks.

 

Further progress.

I offered it at an introductory price of £2.99 per download, of which I would usually receive £2.

I sent out emails and it received good mentions in Press Gazette and Mediaguardian.

It also got some excellent reviews from respected peers and reached 1,600th or so on the Amazon sales chart, way ahead of comparable volumes such as Tom Watson’s Dial M for Murdoch, Sharon Marshall’s Tabloid Girl and Graham Johnson’s Hack.

Mine was the only self-published book in a small media sector and for a time it was leading. But as soon as I stopped promoting, sales plummeted. As a marketing campaign, it was hopelessly uncoordinated.

Being a fan, I had overestimated Kindle usage. A lot of people said they didn’t read e-books. When would the paperback be out? Well, I was still working on that.

The company doing the POD conversion emailed me the pages. On screen they looked fine and so a dummy was printed in Charleston, South Carolina, and one week later it dropped through my letterbox.

I opened it with a child’s eagerness, and an adult’s disappointment.

It was my own fault.

The font was Garamond, okay for magazines but not a book, and there were layout and other errors.

So, as I write this, the book is being reformatted in Times New Roman. It’s not the end of the world. Out shortly, it will look as good as most traditionally published volumes.

Then I will resume promoting it.

After the content, marketing is the key. In fact, with Fifty Shades etc., it’s arguably paramount. My book is a survey over one 24-hour period, showing the intersecting lives of working journalists as they pursue the news around the world.

It is aimed at media people, here and overseas, and I’ve had excellent feedback from Moscow, Beijing, Europe, the States, Australia and even the Cook Islands. I will probably drop the price to 99 pence to create more momentum.

It won’t be in my local Waterstone’s. I’m being global, and so the internet is more important, along with the web version of word-of-mouth. And I want it to have a life-span over several years.

I have learned a lot and, having refined the concept, I am doing a follow-up next 11 March – Rupert Murdoch’s birthday – and making it more exciting and contentious.

If you wish to take part, please see www.24hoursinjournalism2013.com

On balance, I like what I’ve done. I admire publishing houses but I weigh their expertise against speed and autonomy.

Self-publishing is a viable alternative for journalists. But you have to do more than write a book. You have to run a business.

24 Hours In Journalism is available from Amazon.

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