Self publishing for family historians (again)

This is an update of my previous blog (click here for the original) for the friendly attendees of a workshop on Self Publishing for Family Historians at the Society of Genealogists on Saturday 8 February 2020.

First of all, an apology. I misled you concerning inserting images into a paperback. I was confusing paperbacks with ebooks.

To insert an image into a paperback all you need to do is to click Insert where you want the image to go, click on Picture, choose your image, and Bob’s your uncle.

It’s best to make sure the image is the right size before inserting it into the page. If you try to alter the size after you’ve inserted it you may lose resolution. As I remember when I did this it this involved a bit of toing and froing to get the size and position of the image right.

NB: This is for black and white images only. For colour you will need to choose the colour print option on Amazon’s website, and I imagine this will bump up the price somewhat.

Here’s a link to Amazon KDP’s instructions:


Recommended and reputable organisations who can help you with any or all aspects of your self publishing adventure:




PYNTO: A friendly wife-and-husband team who can design any kind of book you like, from basic to custom-made.

LIFELINES PRESS:  A bespoke, personal service for print books only, offering everything from ghost writing to editing to the end production of a beautiful work of art, printed on paper of your choice, hand-bound in leather or anything else you choose.

Before you approach any of these companies:

What you need to think of

EDITING:   There are three main types of editor:

  • Structural edit – checking the manuscript as a whole for clarity, over-writing, under-writing, repetition, overall structure
  • Copy editing – line by line checking for grammar, clumsy writing, repetition, clarity
  • Proof reading – checking for mistakes and typos

There is a certain amount of blurring between these three tasks, but do not expect an editor to proofread your book. She/he may correct mistakes if they spot them but it is a different process altogether, and one a sharp-eyed friend might be able to do for you.



Find a book whose layout you like to use as a template. Consider:

  • SIZE: Of the book; standard non fiction is 6”x 9”, fiction 8”x 5” (but you can choose what you like). 
  • TYPEFACE AND TYPEFACE SIZE:  There are specifically recommended fonts. I used Palatino 11 point. It’s not a bad idea to print out a few pages in various typefaces and sizes in your chosen page size to see what it looks like
  • MARGINS: Mine were quite generous at: top, bottom 1.9cm, inner 2 outer 1.5, gutter .33
  • CHAPTER TITLE LAYOUT:  Centred or left-aligned, upper or lower case, etc.
  • TRIMMINGS: Drop caps, headers, small caps etc
  • IMAGES: (photos, maps, family trees)

FRONT MATTER: What goes before the main text. This is a matter of choice, but for ebooks certainly it’s good to keep it to a minimum. Mine consists of:

  • Title page
  • Copyright page
  • Dedication/quote page
  • Table of contents
  • Photo of the subject of my book

END MATTER:  What comes after the main text.

  • Acknowledgements
  • Appendix & chapter notes/references
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Author biography

You can also include reviews, if you have them, or books you’ve already written.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY:  This is important to readers, so it’s a good idea to make yourself sound interesting and likeable!

  • Keep it brief
  • To the point and in the context of the book.
  • Write in the third person

BLURB: The blurb is what makes a person read a book or pass on.

  • Again, keep it brief – no more than 200 words
  • Write in the third person present tense
  • Remember it is a selling tool not a synopsis, so don’t attempt to tell the whole story

The blurb also acts as a reminder of what excited you enough to write the book in the first place.


The two major players are
Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing):
Ingram Spark:

Both organisations publish in print and ebook form.

Amazon: free to submit, easy to navigate, they provide you with a free ISBN (or ASIN).Subsequent updates and changes, to the interior or cover, are also free.

Ingram Spark: fee of $49 to submit – unless you are a member of ALLi, in which case it’s free), and you need to have your own ISBN (through Neilsen: Advantages of Ingram over Amazon are a) the quality is very slightly better, b) they have print outlets in the UK and Australia, c) they have a wider range of sizes and quality, including hardbacks.

Amazon has around 85% of the market but many people, including bookshops, don’t like them.

In both cases you upload your manuscript as one document (in Word), and your cover separately (as a pdf). You enter your title, author name. Chose categories and keywords, decide pricing. Make sure you fill in your tax details so you are exempt from US tax.

I will be adding details on ebooks shortly. I will also be updating my blogs on formatting.

Meanwhile, happy publishing!

Patsy Trench, February 2020

Self publishing for family historians (again)

For the good people who attended the Society of Genealogists workshop on self publishing on Saturday 8th July, here as promised is the gist of what we covered:

First off, it is important to find out as much as possible about the process in order to avoid getting confused and/or ripped off. There are sharks out there.

Self publishing  is ideal for family historians for several reasons:

  • You get to control everything: the length of the book and the look of it including the cover
  • You can mix the genres (ie history/family history/memoir and fiction)
  • It doesn’t matter if you only intend to sell a few copies (see POD below)
  • You can edit the text, images and/or cover at any time and re-publish the book at no extra cost
  • Your book never goes out of print


This is what has made self publishing in print form possible and financially viable. Instead of having to print off hundreds or thousands of copies of your book, and find somewhere to store them, Amazon (or whoever) files your book electronically and only prints a copy when someone orders one. Unit costs per copy are the same no matter how many you order. Shipping costs on top vary according to the country the buyer lives in and how many copies he/she is ordering. So if for example you order ten copies to be sent to the same address it will not cost ten times as much as ordering one copy.



Having written your book and polished it to within an inch of its life, it’s a good idea to have it professionally edited. Every writer no matter how successful or experienced needs an outside eye to check for overall structure, clarity, repetition and consistency.

(That said, if you are only intending to publish for your immediate family this may not be essential, though the right editor can always improve any book.)


Copy editing means checking the book for grammar and sentence structure. Some editors will do this for you, but don’t expect it.

Proofreading means checking for typos. You should be able to get a sharp-eyed friend or colleague to do this for you.

Once your book has been written, rewritten, edited and proofread, the next step is to gather it together in two documents:


The interior consists of Front matter, text and End matter. What goes where is a matter of choice but generally speaking this is what I go for:


  • Title page
  • Copyright page
  • Dedication/quote page
  • Map/family tree/photo
  • Table of contents


  • Afterword
  • Acknowledgements
  • Appendix & chapter notes (or notes if you have footnoes)
  • Bibliography
  • Author biography
  • Index


In my first book The Worst Country in the World I didn’t use footnotes for various reasons: a) I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the text and b) footnotes don’t generally work in ebooks. Instead I referenced my sources in the Appendix and Chapter Notes, and expanded on various things only the seriously interested, such as family members, might want to know. This was a personal choice however. With my current book I may rethink.


Whether you decide to go it alone or get people to help you it is useful to have some idea of what you want your book to look like. It can be helpful to find a book whose layout you like and use it as a template. (I chose Kate Grenville’s The Secret River for the plainness of style, clarity and size of font and relatively generous margins.) These are the considerations:

  • Page/trim size: Amazon’s POD templates are limited to standard book sizes such as 5” x 8” (standard novel), 6” x 9” (standard non fiction) etc. (I chose 6” x 9”)
  • Font and font size: (I chose Palatino 11 point – on the large size, deliberately; I experimented with different fonts and sizes, & margins,  by printing out a few pages and cutting them down to the relevant size, but it’s difficult to see how it looks until you can see the full printed proof)
  • Margins: (mine were top & bottom 1.9cm, inner 2 outer 1.5, gutter .33)
  • Chapter headings layout: (Aligned L, R or C, upper or lower case, start some way down the page)
  • Extras: such as drop caps (1st letter of 1st sentence in each chapter enlarged), small caps at beginning of new chapter, headers
  • Images: (photos, maps, family trees) – see below for copyright


Received wisdom says don’t try to create your own book cover unless you are an experienced graphic designer or au fait with Photoshop. Professionals know what is eye-catching and what is not and what is appropriate for the genre. They should also be clear about how many versions and amendments they are willing to provide for their fee. Fees differ according to how much they are required to do; original artwork will obviously cost more than if you provide your own image, or if they are able to use stock images from copyright free sources. Expect to pay from around £250 upwards.

Recommended cover designers

Alternatively look online for cover designers and if you find one you like, contact them direct. Likewise in a bookshop: the designer’s name may be on the fly-leaf of the book, otherwise contact them through the publisher.


As we touched on in the workshop copyright is a minefield, and I cannot pretend to be an expert. However I did come up against a copyright issue when I wanted to use a 19th century painting by Australian painter Tom Roberts for my cover. The image itself was out of copyright but the high-resolution photo of the image online belonged to an art gallery in Ballarat, Australia. They allowed me to use it on condition I signed a detailed license form stating I would not change the image or superimpose text on top of it, and that I would send the final proof to them for their approval. In the end my cover designer decided she couldn’t comply with their demands, so we didn’t use it.

So while an image may be out of copyright the online photo of the image – or in the case of books or documents, the scanned version uploaded online by an organisation or library – may not be.


This is what appears on the back of a paperback or on your Amazon page. The blurb is notoriously difficult to write, but it is your selling tool, and should be:

  • Brief – no more than 200 words
  • Written in the third person present tense
  • A selling tool not a synopsis

Here for what it’s worth, is my blurb for Worst Country:

In 1787 a handful of people – convicts, marines and government servants – sail across the world to settle a new colony and call it New South Wales.

In 1801 Mary Pitt, a widow with five children, migrates to New South Wales from her home in Dorset to live among these same convicts.

Two hundred odd years later Mary’s great great great great granddaughter travels to what is now Australia to discover why her ancestress risked the lives of her entire family to make her home in a penal colony. She uncovers tales of astonishing bravery and bloody-mindedness, the origins of a unique form of class distinction, why her own Australian/English mother was the person she was and how what was once regarded as the worst country in the world became one of the ‘luckiest’.  (135 words)

I’m not saying this is an ideal example (nowadays I think I’d edit it down a tad), but what I’ve set out to do in three paragraphs is:

1) The original story
2) My family’s part in the original story
3) My quest to investigate 1) and 2)



There are three basic options

  • DIY using POD with either Amazon Createspace or Ingram Spark – the cheapest option
  • AIDED – through a reputable publishing company or individual
  • HIGH-END – custom-made with special paper, size and shape and/or binding, eg coffee table book. Ideal for image-heavy books.

DIY – This is the option I chose but I would only recommend it if you have a lot of time and patience. I formatted both the paperback and ebook versions of my book – it took me longer than it should have or than it would do now. It isn’t that difficult, you don’t need any particular IT skills no matter what the books tell you.

If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of doing things yourself you can find more technical details here

Amazon Createspace: Amazon are the market leaders for self publishers. They may be behemoths, and tough employers, but they are very efficient and easy to deal with. Their submission guidelines are very straightforward and easy to follow. They can also show you what kind of royalties you can expect to receive according to how your book is priced. The submission process is free, they don’t start to make money until you start to sell books. They also provide their own free ISBNs and barcodes.

Ingram Spark: Ingram have been around forever but Ingram Spark, the self publishing arm, is relatively new on the scene. The advantages of IS are they have print outlets in the UK and Australia as well as the US (Amazon CS is US-based), their distribution is considered to be better, and for the Amazonphobes, they are not Amazon. The quality of print is also slightly better, in my experience. The drawbacks are you have to provide your own ISBN (available in the UK in batches of 10 through Nielsen – – and you have to pay a small fee to submit your ms (unless you are a member of ALLi, see below).

AIDED – Here is where you get someone else to do the work for you. You can buy in services a la carte so to speak, in other words you can provide the cover yourself but hire someone to proofread the book, or to format it.

Before contacting an outside organisation, there are things to be wary of.

  • DO be clear exactly what you are looking for
  • DO make sure you hang onto the rights to your book: if you’re using a self pub company pay the one-off fee to get the book up there and that’s it
  • DO make sure the royalties come straight to you and not through a third party: otherwise you’re dealing with vanity publishing and have the worst of all worlds and will make zilch money
  • DON’T sign any long-term contracts

Recommended organisations:

I Am Self Publishing A young brother and sister organisation, very friendly, very savvy, experienced in producing all kinds of books. They offer an initial no-obligation consultation, either in person or on the phone.

SilverWood – Silver, Gold and Platinum service. Much recommended by fellow indie publishers.

Matador  A large organisation with a rather confusing website. Probably American but also based in the UK. Again recommended by indie authors.

HIGH END – Custom-made, recommended:

I Am Self Publishing – see above
Pynto – as above


If you don’t already have your own family history website I would recommend creating one. It is an excellent way for other family members to get in touch with you. I have a static (ie not a blog) site at and I’ve had all manner of distant relatives contact me with very useful information. You can create one for free, or for a small annual hosting fee, at WordPress.


ALLi guidebook
Published by ALLi and available on Amazon and elsewhere*

ALLi 2
Published by ALLi and available on Amazon and elsewhere










*There seems to be a problem with this Amazon link. I will query it with ALLi and repost.


An organisation run by indie authors for indie authors. They publish a list of recommended service providers (available to members only) and books (available to all). They also have a closed Facebook page and monthly meetups in London and elsewhere, plus they offer other perks such as reduced rates with Ingram Spark and free entry to the London Book Fair, among other things. If you want to know more, click on the ALLi logo on the top right of this page.


Not of great relevance to family historians necessarily. But if you want to submit an article or ask for reviews here are some online magazines.

For example when I contacted Who Do You Think You Are for a review they were pretty sniffy, but I sent them a copy anyway and heard nothing more. However they do – or did – have a feature in their magazine called ‘My Family Hero’ and when approached were very keen to include a story about my ancestress.


Whether or not you are thinking of publishing in e-form (not so suitable for picture-based books), ebooks are easy to produce – again on your own or with help – and you receive a higher royalty (70% through Amazon compared with around 20-25% for paperbacks). Most indie authors sell more ebooks than paperbacks, partly because bookshops are generally reluctant to stock  indie published books, and partly because of the cost of POD. My sales are 90% + ebook, and of those, 95% are through Amazon Kindle.

Submission is straightforward, and free, through Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing:

For other e-devices such as Apple iBook, Nook and Kobo, you can use one site to distribute to all platforms such as Ingram Spark or


Again it is free to submit your book.

That’s about it. If there is anything you would like to add or comment on, or if you have any further queries, please either comment on this post or email me at [email protected].



Self publishing: the nuts and bolts

In response to some queries I’ve been receiving recently from writers thinking about self publishing, here is an update on the nuts and bolts of what it entails.

Self publishing offers exciting opportunities for writers …

  • You get to be in control of everything, including
  • When you publish
  • What you publish
  • The look of the book, including cover design
  • The price

… It also entails a certain amount of hard work, but depending on your inclination and your budget you can get other people to do all or some of it for you. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Write the best book you can and have it professionally edited and proofread
  • Hire a professional cover designer
  • Convert the manuscript into ebook for Amazon and other online retailers
  • Publish the ebook on Amazon direct, and/or through Smashwords
  • Design and publish the paperback
  • Market it!

Amazon is the leading online retailer but there are other important outlets as well, including Kobo, Nook and Apple iBooks. It is possible to publish your book on all of them for free.

There is also Ingram Spark. They publish and distribute ebooks and paperbacks globally. The pros and cons of IS are

  • Their worldwide distribution is better than Amazon’s
  • The quality of paper and print is marginally better than Amazon’s
  • You have a better chance of selling your book through retailers who don’t like Amazon
  • They have print outlets in the UK and in Australia, as well as the USA
  • Unlike Amazon and the rest however you will need your own ISBN. These are available to buy in a minimum of 10 through Neilsen (in the UK).

Marketing your book is a challenge, there’s no doubt about that, and the more writers choose to self publish the harder it is to get anyone to read your book. In my experience non fiction is easier to market than fiction as you can target a specific readership. That said, you can do as little or as much marketing as you like depending on whether you are hoping to make money out of your writing or are just happy to have your book out there.

For more information on the whole process, plus how to find people to help you, please click on

If you are serious about self publishing you might consider joining The Alliance of Independent Authors. They have a private Facebook forum where you can get advice on all aspects of independent publishing, and there are also regular online conferences and physical meetups. Click on the ALLi sidebar on this page to find out more.

Good luck with your indie publishing enterprise, and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Patsy Trench
[email protected]

Exercises in marketing

You’ve written your book, rewritten it, rewritten it, had it edited, cover designed, beautifully produced and published, it looks gorgeous. Nobody is buying it.

Neglected book with border
Sketch by Anna de Polnay

I have been self publishing since 2012 (only 3 books so far) but surprisingly maybe I’ve never before had to find a marketing stategy, perhaps because my first two books are non fiction.

I have however read everything there is to know about marketing, becoming an entrepreneur, building a platform, creating your brand and all those other ghastly business-oriented terms. I have also discovered some useful things, such as:

  • Marketing that works for one author doesn’t necessarily work for another.
  • Marketing that works for one kind of book doesn’t always work for another.
  • Non fiction is easier to market than fiction.
  • Above all it’s vital to find a strategy that you are comfortable with. If you are physically unable to accost people in the street or tell everyone you come upon from bus drivers to checkout people about your book (as am I), then don’t. Think of something else.
  • Try and make it fun.

To this end I am for the first time trying some online promotion sites for my 1920s novel The Unlikely Adventures of Claudia Faradaybeginning tomorrow, December 19. I’ll be blogging about my progress.

Patsy Trench
[email protected]


Self publishing for family historians

As promised to the gentle folk at the Society of Genealogists on Saturday’s workshop on self publishing, here are my notes, posted in two parts.

WHERE I am coming from

What I know about self publishing comes from hard-earned experience publishing my book The Worst Country in the World, which after six years of writing (on and off) evolved into a hybrid mix of family history, early colonial Australian history, memoir and novel. For that reason alone I did not attempt to get it traditionally published. (Nor I realise would any publisher want to take on a book that is not likely to be a mass seller.)

Having read up everything I could find on self publishing and sent off for and received quotes that would entail taking out a mortgage, I decided to do everything myself: convert the book into ebook and design the paperback. The only things I paid for were for editing and cover design. (This not necessarily a path I would recommend unless you have plenty of time and endless patience.)

Sketch by Anna de Polnay

WHAT is self publishing?

Self publishing is ideal for family historians for the following reasons:

  • You get to control everything:
  • You can write the book you want to write
  • You can choose exactly how you want it to look
  • You can spend as much or as little as you want to
  • It doesn’t matter if you’re only expecting to sell a few copies

Print on Demand (POD), which means your manuscript is stored on some electronic device and only printed out when someone orders it, has revolutionised the publishing business. The unit cost of a book is the same whether you order one copy or five hundred. No book goes out of print, and there is no wastage.

However whether or not you decide to buy in professional services or advice it’s important to have a clear idea of what you are looking for with your book. There are sharks out there who are only too happy to charge a small fortune for not very much indeed.

Having done a lot of asking around two companies cropped up frequently, known to offer an efficient, professional and trustworthy service.

Matador’s charges are (according to Choosing a Self-Publishing Service, published by ALLi)

  • Setup, including ISBN, barcode, custom cover design: £680
  • Ebook conversion:  £150
  • Copy edit:  £390
  • Proofread: £340

They do not provide editors, but they do offer marketing and the possibility of getting your book into bookshops (apparently).

SilverWood’s charges are similar, though I’m told they offer a slightly more personal service, and they don’t take on every book.

Also worth considering:

A husband and wife team who offer cover design (at £240), book interior design, setting up of websites, marketing etc.

At the high end of the market:

A bespoke, personal service for print books only, offering everything from ghost writing to editing to the end production of a beautiful work of art, printed on paper of your choice, handbound in leather or anything else you choose.

Before you approach any of these companies however:

What you need to think of

EDITING:   Every writer needs an editor no matter how experienced or successful they are. There are three main types of editor:

  • Structural edit – checking for clarity, over-writing, under-writing, repetition, overall structure
  • Copy editing – line by line checking for grammar, clumsy writing, repetition, clarity
  • Proof reading – checking for mistakes and typos

There is a certain amount of blurring between these three tasks, but do not expect an editor to proofread your book. It is not his/her job. She/he may correct mistakes if they spot them but it is a different process altogether, and one a sharp-eyed friend might be able to do for you (as she did in my case).

For editors you could do worse than taking a look at the readers at the following manuscript assessment companies:

DESIGN of the book

  • Cover
  • Interior

Received wisdom says do not try to create your own book cover unless you are an experienced graphic designer or au fait with Photoshop or other graphic software. For cover designers:

  • UK-based. Your cover remit is ‘put out to tender’ to a number of designers who are invited to submit their designs, and you get to choose your favourite. The more you pay (from £189 up) the more designers you are likely to attract. This has the advantage of being able to choose between several completely different approaches.
  • UK-based. Rebecca Lawston, a highly experienced designer who works for several major publishing companies. Her fees start at £500 for print, £150 for ebook, to include branding and marketing material.
  • US-based. Uses stock images which they manipulate. Charges $150 for print, $100 for ebook, $150 for ebook and print.
  •  US-based. Uses ‘off-the-peg’ templates at $30, or custom design from $35
  •  As above

Matador and SilverWood also offer cover design.

In addition as one helpful participant suggested, it might be worth your while contacting local HE colleges for  graphic design students who might offer their services at a modest fee, in return for experience and publicity. (I have yet to check if this is possible.)

BOOK INTERIOR:  First, find a book whose layout you like to use as a template. Consider:

  • SIZE:  Of the book; standard non fiction is 6”x9”, fiction 8”x5” (but you can choose what you like).  Mine was 6”x9”.
  • TYPEFACE AND TYPEFACE SIZE:  There are specifically recommended fonts. I used Palatino 11 point. It’s not a bad idea to print out a few pages in various typefaces and sizes in your chosen page size to see what it looks like
  • MARGINS:  Mine were quite generous at: top, bottom 1.9cm, inner 2 outer 1.5, gutter .33
  • CHAPTER TITLE LAYOUT:  Centred or left-aligned, upper or lower case, etc.
  • TRIMMINGS:  Drop caps, headers, small caps etc
  • IMAGES:  (photos, maps, family trees) Be aware of copyright: some owners may charge for the use of the image and/or map.

FRONT MATTER : What goes before the main text. This is a matter of choice, but for ebooks certainly it’s good to keep it to a minimum (especially for readers who have downloaded a free sample). Mine are:

  • Title page
  • Copyright page
  • Dedication/quote page.This explained the title of my book
  • Table of contents. Not essential (except in ebooks, for internal links), but standard for non fiction.

END MATTER  :  What comes after the main text. Mine are:

  • Afterword  :  A dedication to my late aunt, who started me off on my genealogical journey
  • Acknowledgements
  • Appendix & chapter notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Author biog

You can also include reviews, if you have them, or  books you’ve already written.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY:  This is important to readers, so it’s a good idea to make yourself sound interesting and likeable!

  • Keep it brief
  • To the point and in the context of the book.
  • Write in the third person

BLURB: The blurb is crucial – it’s what makes a person read a book or pass on. Mine is on the back cover of my book, and also on my Amazon page.

  • Again, keep it brief – no more than 200 words
  • Write in the third person present tense
  • Remember it is a selling tool not a synopsis, so don’t attempt to tell the whole story

The blurb also acts as a reminder of why you decided to write the book in the first place, and what it was made you think other people might like to read it!

Enough for now. The sun is over the yardarm.

COMING NEXT:  DOs and DON’Ts, marketing; ebooks etc.

Sketch by Anna de Polnay
Sketch by Anna de Polnay

Peter Buckman

Welcome to guest blogger number 2, Peter Buckman  of the Ampersand literary agency.

Peter Buckman (
Peter Buckman (

I worked with Peter some years ago on a new play festival organised by the Writers’ and Directors Guild. He was a writer then, mostly for stage and television, with credits under his belt such as the screenplay for the film All Together Now, episodes of Morse and The House of Eliott and the TV adaptation of All Passion Spent Since then he’s swapped writing for agenting so I thought I’d ask him a few questions about what it’s like to be on that side of the writing fence.


PT:  You spent your working life as a scriptwriter. What made you decide to become an agent?

PB:  I also wrote novels and non-fiction, journalism, and stage plays – basically anything that paid except advertising and greetings cards – but as writers grow old, commissioning editors get younger and prefer their own generation. In other words, no one was buying my work, and as my wife had been an agent selling foreign rights for many years, it seemed a sensible idea to find authors for the English-speaking market so that between us we could conquer the world. That was over ten years ago, and I’m having more fun now than ever.

 PT:  What sort of genres and authors do you represent?

PB:  The first book I took on turned into “Slumdog Millionaire”, which either shows what incredibly good taste I have or that talent needs luck and good timing. I asked my veteran consultant Peter Janson-Smith (who represented Ian Fleming among other luminaries) if we should specialise, and he said we should wait and see what comes our way. So we take on writers whose style really enthuses us with a terrific story told in a distinctive voice. And that includes non-fiction as well as novels.

The trappings of success: Peter with Vikas Swarup
The trappings of success: Peter with Vikas Swarup

PT:  As far as I know you don’t represent scriptwriters, even though you were one yourself. Is there a reason for that?

PB:  My first job was as an editor at Penguin, and on the whole people in publishing are a decent bunch. Editors move around but their tastes are reasonably constant, so you know what, and who, you are dealing with. The same cannot be said of the film business; in theatre  it’s as hard to get a new playwright commissioned as it is to get a poet published; and as for television, what they are looking for changes on a daily basis. So we keep sane by dealing chiefly with publishers, though of course we frequently negotiate contracts in other media, including digital.

PT:  What makes you take a particular writer on? Is it simply what you perceive to be his or her commercial value, or is there more to it?

PB:  Believe it or not, commercial considerations come low down in our list of priorities. Obviously we won’t take someone on if we don’t think we can sell their work, but it’s the story-telling skill, the voice, the ability to make the familiar fresh, that really excites us.

PT:  What kind of books and authors are currently selling best, in your experience?

PB:  Genre material seems to be doing well – crime, of course (though I detect a slight shift from the hard stuff, with lots of violence, to cosier crime), but also sci-fi, fantasy, and romance. One thing I do know is that though publishers are always saying “vampires are dead” or “nobody wants to read about angels/zombies/elves any more”, they’re pretty quick to snap up a self-published writer who’s proved readers like something familiar.

PT:  You had a massive success a few years ago with Slumdog Millionaire, which started out as a book called Q & A written by an unknown author called Vikas Swarup. Can you tell us how that all came about?


PB: It’s a bit of a fairy story. I was about to close down my computer one evening when the following opening caught my eye: “I have been arrested. For winning a tv quiz show.” I thought that was pretty intriguing, read the chapter, and rang up the author, an Indian diplomat stationed in London, to ask for the rest. When we met, he told me he’d only written the first chapter, and was going back to India in three weeks. I suggested he finish it, and he sent me the whole first draft a couple of days before leaving. I suggested some small changes, which he made on the flight home, and within six weeks I’d got him a two-book deal with Doubleday, for a six-figure advance.  His editor showed the ms to Film 4’s book scout, and they asked if they could have an option. My initial response was no, as I was sure I’d get offers from Hollywood, but they persisted, and in the end we came to an agreement. I thought they were wrong to commission Simon Beaufoy to write the screenplay (he’d never been to India – but then nor had I), and certainly mistaken to get Danny Boyle to direct, as his two previous films had been flops. But the film was made amazingly quickly, did well at festivals like Toronto, and of course ended up with 8 Oscars, not to mention being sold in 43 languages. Nothing has gone so smoothly since.

PT:  Other than that, what has been your biggest success so far?

Blood Harvest, by S J Bolton
Blood Harvest by S J Bolton

PB:  Sharon Bolton has done very well with Transworld. The prolific Cora Harrison always recoups her advances and earns royalties, whether writing for juveniles or adults. Georgette Heyer continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, even though she’s been dead for 40 years. What I’m proud of is that almost every one of our fifty or so authors has been found a publisher – and we’re continuing to work on behalf of those who haven’t.

PT:  What do you personally enjoy about being an agent? Do you miss being a writer at all?

PB:  I write all the time, articulating my thoughts about the books our clients send us. I’m better at reacting than creating, and I find the process of helping a writer to hone their work very rewarding. And I enjoy the lunches and parties: publishing is a very sociable profession.

The Sting of Justice by Cora Harrison
The Sting of Justice by Cora Harrison

PT:  Do you or your readers read everything that is sent to you?

PB:  We look at everything, but we don’t read it all. We get around 100 submissions a week, every week, and if we read them all we’d never have time to work on our clients’ behalf. Which is why the first sentence/paragraph/page is so important: we put ourselves in the position of any potential book buyer, and need to be intrigued before we get involved.

PT:  The thorny question: are you taking on new writers at the moment?

PB: We’re being cautious, because this is the harshest publishing climate I’ve experienced in over 40 years in the trade.  But new writers are our future, so of course we are always looking for talent that tickles our imagination.

[PT: For Ampersand’s submission requirements please check their website at]

PT:  How in your experience has self publishing impacted on the book business as a whole?

PB: It’s changed it utterly, and democratised it via digital distribution. But it has also impoverished most writers, because payments (except for those who sell hundreds of thousands) are based on absurdly low prices, and there’s no quality control over content.

PT:  Do you have any words of advice for writers?

PB: Trust your instinct over your intellect, and don’t be too proud to promote yourself.


The London Book Fair

I was more or less warned off going to the London Book Fair by other writers who said ‘It’s really not for authors’, but I went along anyway on the offchance.

Earls Court

Entering the massive space of the Earls Court Exhibition Centre is daunting. You feel as if you’re in the cosmetics section of the biggest department store in the world. You stroll past the glossy stands of Chanel, Estee Launder and Clinique (Harper Collins, Hachette and Bloomsbury), and the cheap-and-cheerful counters of Bourjois, Olay and Max Factor (the smaller publishing businesses) and on through the digital solutions bit, and there tucked away right at the back is the Author HQ. Here you can attend back-to-back seminars, mostly but not entirely about self publishing, many of which bore little or no relation to the schedule I had painstakingly downloaded from the LBF website.

Author HQ

Thus I found myself this afternoon accidentally sitting in on part of a seminar called ‘The Write Stuff’, where brave authors can pitch their books to a panel of writers’ agents. They have two minutes for their pitch and the agents have two minutes to comment. As expected, the ones with the brilliant sales strategies weren’t necessarily the ones with the best product, and vice versa, which only goes to confirm my concern that in the self publishing world it’s not your writing that matters so much as your marketing skills.

On the Tuesday I bumped into Becky Swift from The Literary Consultancy who told me they have developed relationships with Amazon, Kobo, Nook and the rest, all of whom are looking to them for product that has the TLC stamp of approval (which is not easy to get), which means they are acting as a kind of useful filter.


Upstairs in the rarified virtually author-free zone of the IRC (International Rights Centre), where I was stopped at the gate and quizzed about my intentions and only let through when I said I was visiting an agent friend and promised not to misbehave, agents sit in rows of stalls doing deals with publishers. News from there was gloomy – in an uncertain market the larger publishing houses are increasingly reluctant to take on new and untried writers (nothing new there). Which  means of course it makes even more sense to self publish. As one (self published) speaker said earlier, ‘Why wait months for an agent to turn you down and several more for publishers to do the same when you can submit your book now?’

Alternatives to Amazon

I’ve already blogged about Smashwords, which distributes ebooks to all outlets, including Amazon, but I also wanted to check out alternatives to Amazon’s CreateSpace, their print-on-demand ‘arm’. I’ve published through CreateSpace and found it miraculously easy, efficient, quick and free (to upload). But if you want to avoid Amazon there is a company called As far as I can tell they print and distribute your book, just like CreateSpace, only they have outlets in the UK, thereby in theory reducing shipping costs. I haven’t investigated them properly yet but it looks as if, unlike Amazon, they have startup costs. They handed me a couple of impressive-looking brochures so if you’re thinking of publishing something where quality and colour are paramount, they may be worth checking out.

Or there’s Ingram, which I knew as LightningSource, which I looked at when I was publishing my Australian book as they have an outlet in Australia (as well as here in the UK). The lady at the counter however, who was in charge of ‘transportation’, told me postal costs within Australia are so high it’s cheaper for Aussies to buy from the US, which is rather astounding. Again they have startup costs (I believe), but if you are expecting to sell a lot of books in the UK they may be worth checking out at


Other interesting things I learned:

  • children are really into ebooks (perhaps not surprisingly).
  • the best selling book in the Australian charts is The Book Thief, written by the Sydney-born writer Markus Zusak. (Good to see the Aussies celebrating their own.)
  • the Guardian is introducing a prize for self published authors.

Was it worth going? Absolutely, if only as an excuse to get out there and connect with other writers and anyone connected to the writing and publishing business. Which as indie authors we have to do!

Online conference

Take a look at this –

It’s an online conference about self publishing featuring major players from the US and the UK. I’m not quite sure how it works but it takes place between 25 & 27 February and it’s free – all you have to do is register.

Thanks to Linda Acaster for passing this on from David Gaughran.



CONGRATULATIONS to Simon Webb, first graduate (so far as I know) of the Trench School for the Technically Puzzled, for his book Running Blind: an Alternative View of the London Marathon, now published as an ebook on Amazon. This is a special achievement as Simon is registered blind. The book ‘focuses on London’s history, culture and sport, famous and not so famous landmarks, people and pubs’ on the marathon route. The paperback version is due to appear shortly.

An interview with myself

What made you decide to self publish?

The book in question, The Worst Country in the World, is about the early days of colonial Australia as seen through the eyes of my ancestress and her family. I’ve called it a ‘dramatised’ version of my family history as I’ve hooched up bits of it in order to make it more generally appealing. So it’s a mix of history, family history,  fiction and personal memoir, in other words a hybrid and not necessarily aimed at the mass market. I didn’t want to waste time therefore sending it to agents. Besides which self publishing was just beginning, it seemed to me, to look like a real possibility.

How did you find out how to go about it?

I read everything I could lay my hands on about self publishing – books and blogs – attended conferences and chatted to other writers. I found it all pretty overwhelming. I didn’t think for a moment I could handle everything myself so I got quotes from several different specialist companies for doing it for me. They ranged from £3000 to around £125, and I found as I went I was getting more and more confused about precisely what they were quoting for. It is, to say the least, a minefield.

Why did you decide to do the whole thing yourself?

Partly because of this confusion, partly because I’m a control freak and wanted a perfect result, but mostly because of other writers who convinced me it was possible to do it yourself without any specialist IT skills or software. And of course because it’s a useful set of skills to acquire.

And how was it?

A nightmare. I was following different sets of instructions that not only contradicted each other but were almost all unnecessarily complicated. For example I was told to put the manuscript through Notepad in order to clear it of all coding, but this meant I lost the italics, which I’d used in the book to distinguish between genuine quotes and what I’d made up, and it took me forever to put them back in. I realised too late this was completely unnecessary. As a result it took me much longer than I anticipated and I spent a good deal of it tearing my hair, which at my age I can’t really afford to do.

What made you persist?

Doggedness. Once I’d embarked on that path I had to get to the end of it. I was looking all the while for practical hands-on workshops but couldn’t find any, which is why I decided to set them up myself.

Are you glad, finally, you decided to go down this particular self publishing route?

Yes, without question. It’s been to say the least an experience, I feel I’ve crammed a year’s learning into a few weeks. But I’m a great believer in diy – there’s nothing like fighting your own way through a maze to help you understand that maze and, hopefully, help others through it.

What was the most difficult part of the process?

Having eventually figured out the nuts and bolts the most challenging part of it all is unquestionably the marketing. Many or maybe most writers are solitary people and not necessarily much good at blowing their own trumpets. I’ve yet to fully master this particular conundrum and like many others, I find it difficult to find the time and energy to both write books and then to publish and market them. (For more on marketing have a look at the marketing page.)

What is the best thing about self publishing?

You get to control everything yourself.

What is the worst?

You get to control everything yourself. There is no one else helping you, no one else to take the responsibility or blame if you don’t come up to scratch.

How did your books sell?

Moderately. The Worst Country sold some copies, mostly in Australia, not enough to retire on, or even give up the day job. I was encouraged by people’s reaction to the book itself, which exceeded my expectations and some, but discouraged by the difficulty I had getting bookshops, in particular in Australia, to take it. They were much tougher to convince than the equivalents here in the UK.

Would you self publish again?

Without question. It’s a bit like having a baby, once you’ve done it you know what to do next time. And you’ve still got the clothes and the equipment from the first, so why waste them? (NB I am not suggesting these are sound reasons for having babies by the way.)

What are the pros and cons of self publishing for the book industry, and readers, as a whole?

Pros – anyone can publish anything they like. Some of it is rubbish, but hopefully most of it is not. It takes a huge amount of effort to write a book after all. It also releases writers from the straitjacket of pigeon-holeable genres, and specified page numbers, which opens the door to all sorts of new and strange ideas and means a book is only as long as it needs to be.

Cons – anyone can publish anything they like and sorting the chaff from the wheat is tricky. It also means that writers who are good self-publicists may dominate over better writers who are not. But it’s still a young business and I’m sure these bumps will be ironed out in due course one way or another. It also does open the door to unscrupulous people who are charging unwitting writers a small fortune to publish their books, which makes them vanity publishers in the old sense.

What sort of person in your view is best suited to doing it themselves?

People with patience, and discipline – which all writers have anyway, ha ha – and persistence, which likewise. Most of my friends are impatient with their computers and resort to the swearing rather too early in the process. So doggedness is necessary. And time. I am not a techie and the only reason I know more about computers than the next person is because I’ve made a point of finding out. I never did an IT course in my life, nor do I intend to!

Do you have any final words of advice for writers thinking of self publishing?

Firstly, if self published writers are to be taken seriously then it’s up to us to make sure the finished result is as professional as we can make it: that the book itself is ready to be published, has been properly edited and proofread, and the layout and cover are as good as we can make them. In other words indistinguishable from a traditionally published book. This means a lot of work because the single writer is taking on the job of a team of experienced book producers, but it is possible.

Secondly, be wary of people or organisations who tell you they love your book and are prepared to publish it for ££££. Make sure you know exactly what they are offering for your ££££. When and if in doubt get in touch with me via this site and I will try to advise if I can. I would also be interested to hear from self published writers who’ve had a bad experience with one of these organisations, or indeed a good one!

Patsy Trench, February 2014