I have always dreamed of being a published author. This is the dream of so many writers, but the chances of it ever happening are vanishingly small. With so much space available online for people to publish their own thoughts and opinions, how easy is it to get a book into print these days?
The answer is incredibly hard. Ah, but what about e-publishing?
Yes, e-publishing is one way for writers to publish themselves and get widely read, but in fact it is just as hard to market an e-book as it is a paper one. Also the income from an e-book is very low. Although it remains the easiest way for people to see their work published, it was not the route I wanted to go. I wanted a proper book, printed on paper that I could see people carry around.
Cows and Trees
Someone once remarked to me that books were just cows and trees. As in glue and paper. But I cannot accept this. They are not just objects. They symbolize something far more important. As a literature graduate books as artifacts have always been something of an obsession.
I have shelves and shelves of them.
At University I loved using my antiquarian copies of the classics, printed on tissue thin paper, with gold-tooled spines. While others bought pound versions from the remainder bins and scrawled all over them with felt-tipped pens I would turn the pages of mine carefully, only making the lightest marks on the page if it was absolutely essential.
There was and is something almost sacred about books for me.
I think it was the horror on my mother’s face when she told me as a child about the Nazis burning books. She left me in no doubt that it was the most heinous crime against thought and freedom, and that books were precious and to be cared for.
When I later saw the college where I taught loading old books into a skip I desperately tried to stop them — although in fairness I don’t know who would be able to use 200 copies of John Donne, and 150 copies of The White Devil. It just seemed terribly wrong all the same. I grabbed what I could and gave up trying to reason. The books were binned.
What to write about
So my relationship with books was strong, but to write one I would need a subject. I didn’t have the confidence to write fiction just yet. Having been exposed to the classics I was somewhat intimidated!
Opportunity presented itself somewhere quite unexpected in the end. I was browsing the shelves of the famous Left Bank bookshop Shakespeare & Co in Paris when I noticed a fellow beside me reading a book on architecture. We got chatting and over coffee he explained that he wanted to write a book but didn’t know where to start. It was to be a history book, about Paris, which would provide translations of the historical plaques that could be found all over the city.
I immediately offered my services!
Agents and publishers were lukewarm. They didn’t seem to see the potential. Disheartened after numerous rejections we came to a decision. We would publish it ourselves. Hang it. If it sold they would buy it from us. If it didn’t we would have followed a dream to its end.
I immediately restricted all unnecessary expenses, looked for cheap insurance and lower bank charges to save money for the project. With dodges and blagging it was surprisingly reasonable in the end, as dreams go.
Fact is as fun as fiction!
Months later I finished the task. The book was not a dry non-fiction book at all. As I read the translations I realized that they contained the most wonderful stories about people and events in Paris history that would remain totally hidden from visitors without the book.
I retold the stories, and was able to bring the joy of writing fiction to the process. I wrote about the glittering balls at the Chateau Rouge, the blood-curdling tale of the Chevalier de la Barre (gruesomely executed for possessing seditious literature), the inspiring life of Louise Michel, Communard and freedom fighter. I dug into tales of the Paris Commune, the last minute escape from the guillotine by Felix Desportes, and a daring escape from Paris by balloon during the Siege.
It was just as much fun as writing fiction!
A graphic designer friend made a beautiful cover for the book (extremely important) and designed the inside for us. I taught myself to use his design software by watching online tutorials and forums, and typeset the text and pictures.
After trial and error and lots of late nights we finally had our book.
It was packed with pictures – old postcards found in antique markets in Paris, and images from local historians. Some pictures had not been seen for over a hundred years. Another friend in Mexico, an artist, helped me restore the old photos electronically.
Finally the work was done. The printer was sourced and one thousand copies of the book printed.
The day the books arrived at my house is one I will never forget. Having worked as a print buyer for a big publisher many years ago I knew to tear open the packages and check for printing errors immediately. There were none. The book was perfect.
A year down the line the book is selling well. In fact, every prestigious bookshop in Paris stocks it, including Shakespeare & Co, where it was conceived. The Louvre was the icing on the cake. When their buyer smiled and agreed to take my book I knew I had finally achieved my big dream. Not only had I written a book, I was not paying a penny in royalties to agents or publishers.
Amazon U.S. sold out of within two weeks and Amazon UK shows steady growth in sales too.
My advice to anyone thinking of doing something similar is — Just Do It. Things are often not as difficult as you might think. People with the right skills love to help others who are struggling and will gladly help out. My list of acknowledgements is huge! If there is something you can’t do, ask in a forum or look for an online tutorial.
You’ll be amazed at what is out there.
If I can do it, anyone can!
About the author: Isabella Woods is a professional writer and researcher