Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Overcoming Obstacles to Publishing

While sorting some files today, I came across my attempt to interest Melbourne University Press (MUP) in the idea of publishing my Forrester book. That was six years ago, but it reminded me of the hurdles a writer needs to jump in order to get a book in front of readers.

On 12 March 2007 I submitted my proposal to MUP electronically, completing the form on their website. On 3 April 2007 I received a request for several sample chapters, which again were forwarded electronically, this time via email. Commercial publishers generally show little enthusiasm for publishing family histories, but I was hopeful of garnering some interest, as the Forrester book was more 'Australian history' than 'family history' and had a wide potential market if properly promoted.

Meanwhile, I was already experimenting with preparing a book for publication myself and my Pierssené book, a traditional family history with a very small target market, was printed later that year, with sales reliant on emails to known family members.

Silence reigned at MUP for five months, so I rang them, to discover that my Forrester chapters had been 'lost' in the system. On 4 September 2007 I resubmitted several chapters as requested, and a week later I received the following response:

I managed to rush your sample chapters through to our Associate Publisher, and unfortunately she does not believe that Robert Forrester, First Fleeter is appropriate for our list. Once again I apologise on behalf of Melbourne University Publishing for the delay in response.

No matter that a different person had definitely been interested five months earlier! However I won't try to second-guess that eventual decision by MUP. Maybe I should have waited until the book was absolutely and completely ready, but at this point I certainly began to think that the book would never be published, if this was an example of the process and time spans involved in finding a commercial publisher. I gave up on that idea.

It was discouraging, but at least there was no publishing deadline to meet, which allowed me more time to polish the draft in a way that suited my personal timetable. This is a crucial point for family histories - rushing them into print nearly always leads to problems. Too many readers will find mistakes and quickly label your work as 'unreliable'.

During 2008, as well as finalising the Forrester draft, I self-published another traditional style of family history, From Buryan to Bondi, about the Dennis family from Cornwall. During 2008 I also became aware of that incredible Melbourne-based company BookPOD, where I could deliver my PDF file, have my cover designed, and be sure that the boxes of books would arrive at my front door a matter of days after approval of the page proofs. (BookPOD provides a range of other publishing services too, but these were the ones I needed.)

I set up a website for marketing purposes and directed would-be purchasers to BookPOD's bookstore, where customers could buy my books using their credit card or Paypal. The system yields a much better return for writers than a publisher's royalty provides, because it cuts out the middleman.

The rest is history. The book was launched at the end of January 2009, has been re-printed and continues to find a steady market via my website and word-of-mouth publicity. My readers regularly venture beyond the Forrester book to my two subsequent books about the early history of the Hawkesbury - Paul Bushell, Second Fleeter and Southwark Luck, both printed by BookPOD. Imagine what might have happened to Robert Forrester and his incredible story had the status and marketing power of Melbourne University Press helped sales along.

I now take pride in being part of the new publishing paradigm, despite contending with traditionalists who continue to believe that an editor's opinion is the necessary pre-requisite for judging the worth of a book. This ongoing attitude generates the main downside of self-publishing - the difficulty of selling sufficient copies to libraries to qualify for the CAL and PLR payments which help keep Australian authors in business in our small market place. I still haven't broken through this barrier, so I encourage all my readers to ask their local library to order a copy of Robert Forrester, First Fleeter. Ongoing feedback proves that it's a good story, of appeal to a general reader.

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