This week we have an interview with Mel Small, founder of Indipenned. Mel tells us about his experiences as a writer, how he came up with the idea for Indipenned and what he and the Indipenned Team are doing to promote the work of independent authors.
Why did you decide to become a writer?
I’m not sure I did. It was more of an accident really. Over the years, I’d had lots of ideas for novels, but wasn’t confident that I could translate those ideas into a novel of seventy thousand or eighty thousand words. On top of that, there’s the amount of effort involved in writing a novel and finding the time when you have a full-time career and a number of entrepreneurial endeavors to occupy you too.
It’s a long story, ironically, but I only started writing after a series of circumstances, including me coming up with an idea for a much different version of Sherlock Holmes whilst also realizing my reservations over word count would go away if I wrote short stories. The short story thing seemed quite apt given the majority of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are written in this format
My final jolt to put pen to paper, or rather thumbs to phone screen and fingers to keyboard, came during a conversation over a few beers in a Sheffield pub. During that pre-match conversation, ahead of Sheffield Wednesday versus Middlesbrough FC fixture, another Boro fan told us about a book he was writing. I mentioned my Sherlock Holmes idea and we went from there. Over the next months, my fellow first-time author emailed me chapters of his novel and I sent my short stories in the other direction. We then provided feedback on each other’s work, adding the odd gag here and there.
I’ve not realized this before, but me becoming an author seems to have been predestined by a penchant for alcohol. Subconsciously, I must have known it was a worthwhile endeavor that would one day reap its rewards. Perhaps my fondness for drinking responsibly is also why the characters I write about also like the odd tipple.
How long did it take you to write your books?
Given, in the full-time career I mentioned earlier, I’m an IT Project Manager, I drew up a plan. This wasn’t particularly detailed, I just set myself the goal of writing a short story a month. Each story weighs in at about twelve to fifteen thousand words. As it was, I did a lot of writing when I was away on holiday and managed to come in slightly ahead of schedule. I do that a lot. I’m very good project manager… *wink*
Why did you decide to go down the independently-published route?
I just wanted to get my book out there. I didn’t find the prospect of sending a manuscript to various literary agents and publishers only to hear nothing or, at best, receive a templated rejection letter particularly appealing.
Fortunately, I came across an independent publisher in my home town called Sixth Element and they turned my writing into very professional-looking books. They are very particular in what they do and place a lot of emphasis on the product they output. Personally, I wouldn’t have thought much about the type of paper that needs to be used, the look and feel of the cover, and such things. After spending so much time writing, I think it would be a crime if readers were put off if your book wasn’t formatted quite right or didn’t have a particularly engaging cover. Finding someone to guide me through the publishing process was a godsend really. In the beginning, I didn’t even know that the description on the back of a book was called the blurb. I’d the heard the word but assumed it was some sort of slang. I could have googled all of what was involved, but what price your time and the cost of the mistakes you may make? To my mind, it was much better to pay 6e to do things like proofreading, type setting, and cover design.
The other benefit of the independent-publishing is that you retain control. You have a copy of the ebook to send out to reviewers. If, like I did, you go down the route of an offset printrun, rather than print on demand; you also end up with a pile of books you can sell at a reasonably good margin. Obviously, there’s financial outlay for all this so you need to be pretty confident in your work, unless you have money to burn, that is. The project manager in me set myself some success criteria. Namely, that the project, i.e. the two books, would be cost neutral. I’ve achieved this with a few quid in the bank and a couple of boxes of books in hand.
So, you didn’t attempt the traditional publishing route at all?
After the first book had been published, I did send an extract to the literary agents Curtis Brown. I very much like the concept of independent publishing, however I also quite like the idea of an advance for my next book in the form of a big bag of cash and my version of Sherlock Holmes being on the telly. As it was, I got a rejection. To quote them, “While we enjoyed reading your submission, I’m afraid we couldn’t find an agent here who felt strongly enough to take it further and therefore we are not able to offer you representation for this project.”
I wasn’t that disheartened by their response. If anything, it was quite encouraging. I may be getting this spectacularly wrong but I can’t help wondering if some of this failure was less about the writing and more about their thoughts on how my book sat in the current marketplace. Since entering the world of literature I’ve come to know several authors and there is a feeling, perhaps an understanding, that the big publishing companies feel a lot more comfortable about selling books that are similar to what has already been sold. This is a phenomenon I like to call the Fifty Shades effect. How many times do you see descriptions of books saying, “Girl on a Train meets Advanced Hygge for Vampires”? This is fine. If you are unaware of what’s outside the mainstream then you are probably not going to lose much sleep over it.
They only people who this really affects is those independent writers who are trying to do something different from the norm. This is not to say I’m one of these. I’m not saying putting Sherlock Holmes in a provincial town in the North East of England is particularly ground-breaking, but I’m told it is funny, so someone somewhere is missing out on a bloody good laugh.
Obviously, an untapped wealth of independently-written literature is a much bigger issue for those writers who are trying to advance the art form and, in doing so, expanding both people’s minds and our culture and society. Let’s face it, someone has got to do something. It would be a crying shame if a thought-provoking classic work of literature was missed because it fell just outside the zeitgeist. I mean, that book could lead to the film that drags Tom Cruise’s career out of its current death spiral. What price that?
How have you found life as an independent author?
There’s no pretending it’s easy. Writing a book is one thing, but that’s just the start of it. Then you have to let people know about it. It’s not like I expected to write a book and instantly have a bestseller on my hands (honest), but it’s nice if a good few people do read what you’ve written. Even better when you get some feedback from those who like it.
This is one of the reasons I came up with the idea for Indipenned. I thought it would good if there was a platform specifically designed to support and promote independent authors. Those of us who have chosen the independently published route are competing against the big publishing companies and their marketing budgets. A lone gun indie is always going to struggle in that skirmish. That’s what makes the occasional success story, such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, so newsworthy.
What is Indipenned.com?
As I mentioned previously, Indipenned is a platform that promotes the work of independent writers. We think there are a lot of independently-minded book lovers out there, who are happy to journey outside of mainstream publishing in search for less formulaic and more imaginative literature. We want to help them by providing an online destination crammed with quality independently-written books. The basic idea is to make publishing more about informed choice and less about the deep pockets of publishing company executives. Indipenned is for wolves not sheep.
To achieve this, we have created an online bookshop that is exclusive to independent authors, along with a number of facilities that will help writers improve and promote their work. Each writer gets their own area of Indipenned which provides a showcase for their books and allows them to promote their work by posting short stories blogs, news items and notifications of upcoming events such as book launches and signings. Indie authors can also collaborate and share their experiences of independent-authorship by posting knowledge articles. My writer area is linked here.
There are websites that provide similar facilitates to Indipenned, however that number reduces when you remove those sites who also serve mass-marketed literature. Perhaps the thing that sets us aside from the rest is our secret algorithm, which uses a number of factors to determine the prominence with which books are displayed on Indipenned. It’s not for us to decide what is good and bad. However, if we’re honest, when it comes to the books we actively push, we do favour the ones with cool engaging cover artwork. This is one of the areas where writers and publishers need to help us by producing the best possible book.
The technology which facilitates self-publishing has removed many of the barriers for authors looking to get their work published. A reasonable level of IT literacy will allow you publish an ebook. A little bit more effort and a willingness to navigate the vagaries of print-on-demand gets you a paperback. Therein lies a paradox. Whilst technology has made it a lot easier to become a published author, it has also created a crowded marketplace (I’m not really sure I like that word) in which it is a lot more difficult for writers to be discovered. If we’re honest we haven’t quite figured this paradox yet ourselves, but we have a whole host of ideas to try. These start with our algorithm which is designed to encourage the cream to float to the top.
How is Indipenned doing?
It’s growing steadily. We’re hoping to affect big changes and that doesn’t happen overnight. What is particularly encouraging is the feedback we have been receiving from the authors we’ve been working with in these first few months. It’s a long road, but nothing has deterred us from expecting spectacular things. We want to transform the world of publishing and find some classic pieces of literature along the way. When it comes to unearthing that literary classic, we’re not managing our expectations down at all. We’re looking for Charles Dickens and a couple of Brontë sisters on a voyage to Jupiter type thing. Seriously though, if we were to play a part in helping a modern-day classic get the attention it deserves, it would make all the hard work we’ve put in to Indipenned worthwhile.
What have you been doing to make indie authors aware of you?
In these early days our focus is very much on social media. Indipenned is a social network, however we a still have presences on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We’re also building up the content on the website. This starts with getting some great books in our online bookshop. We are very happy with what we’ve been able to achieve in this respect. The next thing is to publish some free-to-view content. Some of our authors have started the ball rolling in this respect by posting blogs and I am going to add to that by serialising a novella I have written in the short story section. It’s a brand-new Sherlock Holmes story that, in the first instance, will be exclusive to Indipenned. I’m quite proud of this in that two stories are told. Clearly, there’s a mystery to solve, however, similar to the Sir ACD originals, Watson is also an author and The Darlington Substitution also describes some of his travails as he makes his early forays into the world of publishing. I thought that quite clever. Hopefully, a few other people will too and my story will help make Indipenned a compelling place to visit for both readers and writers. To let people know about the story we’re also pulling together a blog tour that will coincide with the first episode being published, early next year.
One of the other initiatives we’re working on is book reviews. Indipenned already allows readers to post reviews, however we’re pulling together team of reviewers to provide feedback to the authors who have listed books in our online bookshop. If a book is in our bookshop and the author sends us an ebook then we will take a look at it. Actually, one of the great things that has happened is authors sending us signed paperbacks for Facebook competitions. These will get reviewed too, before the lucky competition winner gets their booty.
This is just the beginning. We have all sorts of weird and wonderful plans and have hardly scratched the surface.
What are your next plans as an author?
I suppose therein lies an irony. The thing that prevented me becoming an author for many years was the thought a good idea for a story may not translate to an eighty thousand word novel. My idea to work round this by writing short stories resulted in me writing twelve short stories of one hundred and sixty thousand words in total, which have a story arc running across them. I’ve been told my books “read like a novel” and one person described them as an “episodic novel.” So now I’m writing a couple of novels. I’d rather not say too much about these books at the minute other than one is a dystopian end of the world thing and the other is something I’m calling a black romantic comedy. Both do involve people talking in pubs.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
I think perhaps the most important thing is to keep yourself honest. More people start writing books than finish them (ahem). If you want to be one of those authors that gets their work into print, then you need to have some sort of discipline. Personally, I keep a word count across all the projects I’m working on. If I have a bad week when I don’t get much written, I make a concerted effort to better and perhaps recover this the following week. It took me twelve months to write my two books and I was a much different, hopefully better, writer at the end of that period. That was fine for me, because I had an amateur chronicler in the form of Doctor Watson narrating my books. It wasn’t my style that was changing but his. I’ll admit to not having a lot of experience of this, but is seems safe to assume if it takes much more than a year to write a novel then there will be a lot of rework involved to ensure consistency.
Other than that, the only other advice I would offer is for independent writers and independently-minded readers to get themselves over to Indipenned.com and let’s see if we can make a few changes for the better.
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