Please give a big welcome to RU’s latest contributor, editor Tessa Shapcott! Tessa shares her insight on self-publishing, from editing and book design to packing and promotion.
Great to have you here, Tessa!
When I parted company with the iconic romance publishers, Harlequin Mills & Boon, earlier this year, I faced a dilemma: should I look for a job with another traditional house, or take a year out to try and achieve another ambition of mine—to set up a freelance editing business of my own? I’d been with HMB for a long time and spent many happy years building an editing career there with the Harlequin Presents line, so it was a little daunting whichever way I jumped.
But the most successful times for me have always been based on taking risks, so I plumped for the freelance route: I would give myself a year to see if I could make it happen.
Six months down the line, I find myself on an amazing and unexpected journey. The freelance commissions have been flowing in and I’ve found a niche, concentrating on helping writers who wish to self-publish women’s fiction. I had already witnessed the explosion of do-it-yourself publishing while I was at Harlequin and have to confess I started freelancing with the mind-set of many editors working for traditional houses—that the self-published arena was full of poor-quality stuff; the real gems would be few and far between. I’ve changed my perspective very rapidly!
I can genuinely say that working with writers to polish their work so that they can self-publish has been enlightening, rewarding and refreshing. From what they’ve told me, there seem to be a number of reasons why authors want to go it alone. The already-published definitely crave editorial freedom and the chance to manage their own destiny financially and marketing-wise, and of course self-publishing offers the opportunity for that self-determination. Some aspiring writers have often experienced rejection by traditional houses already, not because they aren’t talented, but because their content doesn’t fit an imprint’s parameters. Tales of square pegs and round holes have generated fear amongst others that they won’t be properly recognised if they submit. For all, there is a dissatisfaction that publishers are slow to process submissions and that editing and production processes can be lengthy.
The interesting thing is that I haven’t seen a bad manuscript yet. When I saw that I could stake my corner dealing with the self-published, I began by expecting to deal with some writers who I assumed just wouldn’t make the grade via the traditional route. I thought hard about how I would handle them and came to the conclusion that there was no right and wrong here; I would just do my best to help them make the most of what they had. The challenge for me was that I had to move past years of collaborating with authors to shape and mould their writing to a branded framework. At this point, I should say that writing or editing category romance for a publisher such as Harlequin require immense skill and discipline, as you must always strive to deliver a promise to the reader in terms of character, plot and emotional content, and I know that working with that structure made me the editor I am today. But maybe I had developed blinkers. Now I had to look for the best in the novels I was working on wherever it lay and in whatever form it chose to present itself. This has been a growth experience for me.
What really has struck me is the energy and joy in the work I have seen so far. This is what writers really want to write. Sometimes they do wander down paths to nowhere as their stories unfold, but there’s been nothing that can’t be fixed. Mainly, the quality has been great and there’s creativity in abundance. Characters have depth because they can have flaws. Plots take unexpected turns because there’s not so much of a pressure to meet market expectations. In the romances, the erotic content is a revelation; writers feel able to include as little or as much as their hearts desire and a natural self-regulation comes into play: I’ve seen some pretty hot and steamy stuff that maybe I would have put my red pen through in my previous life, purely because the accepted wisdom was that the reader wouldn’t like it. Or would she? Now there’s space to discover the truth, and Fifty Shades of Grey has held open the door.
However, it doesn’t take an Einstein to realise that all this great self-generated content must be hard for the consumer to negotiate and penetrate. Funnily enough, the biggest mountain for writers to climb seems to be packaging—getting the title, back cover copy and cover art right is crucial, and there are a lot of fails in this area of the self-publishing arena, which is perhaps why many writers don’t see the financial rewards they hoped for. It’s incredibly difficult to step outside the novel with which you’ve been bound up for months and be objective; how to recognise and focus on the key selling points which will entice the browser to pick your book. I continue to think this is where traditional publishers still hold the advantage. Though this is changing: there are freelance designers, packagers and marketers springing up all over the place ready to capitalize on the self-publishing boom. But when a writer has dreamed of doing it for herself, exactly the way she wants it, she may be reluctant to hand over the reins. And then all she has are her own marketing efforts and the hope that word-of-mouth, the biggest driver of sales, will do the work for her.
The canny ones set up their own focus groups using the feedback from eager readers and amateur critique-ers, who themselves want to influence what’s available to them in the market and also who will act as online ambassadors and grant velocity to a novel—an audience force that publishers long to harness effectively. This has an influence on story content too—from being the publisher’s editor (the One in Charge), I have had to adapt as a freelancer to existing alongside and embracing other points of view about texts from non-professionals who are also advising my self-publish clients and, again, this has enhanced my perspective. You get to understand the democracy at work with readers: common agreement will emerge about what works and doesn’t and, from what I’ve seen so far, these observations are often spot-on. What I can add is extra objectivity, borne of training and experience, and help the writer to articulate the changes and enhancements into their vision.
I can already see how the publisher side of the business is being influenced and adapting to the self-publishing sector, since, as well as working directly with writers, I have been assisting a couple of new online start-ups that are launching women’s fiction imprints. These companies are taking the self-publisher’s goals—self-determination, editorial freedom and audience interaction—as their guiding principles. These are interesting times that we live, write and edit in, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Self-publishing has certain advantages over traditional publishing, but which one is right for you?
Author Larissa Reinhart joins us on Wednesday, September 18th.
Bio: Tessa Shapcott is a freelancer editor, specializing in genre and women’s fiction and also helping authors to self-publish. She also writes category romance novels. A life-long fan of romantic fiction, she spent many years working for the publisher Harlequin Mills & Boon, first leading the Harlequin Presents line and then the editorial department. She can be contacted via her website: tessashapcott.com; or via email: tessashapcott @gmail.com.
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