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Interview with Susan Smith, author of Living with the Lions and Invisible Elephants

What process did you go through to find a publisher?

I started out by doing an online search for New Zealand Publishers but quickly found that it was very difficult to submit a new manuscript for perusal unless you had a previous connection. Most online sites that I looked at were discouraging in that they were not looking for new material, nor did they provide unpublished authors with any options to share their work. I have since joined PANZ (Publishers Association of New Zealand) and gotten a much better understanding of how publishing works in New Zealand.

I have also sent my work to a selection of publishers that I felt may be interested in my work, along with approaching a couple of agents for representation, and have come to the conclusion that it is a very difficult market to break into if you don’t take some initiatives of your own.

Could you talk us through how you ended up signing up with a hybrid publisher?

I was delighted one day to find a site that invited new submissions and thought I would give it a try. With no experience in the publishing world, I was excited to receive a very official letter and contract telling me that my book had merit and that they believed it deserved a place amongst the published books of the world. I couldn’t believe that getting published could be so easy. It was very flattering and I couldn’t believe my luck.

Then I read through the contract and even the ‘small contribution’ of over 2,000 pounds seemed quite feasible once you considered what was being offered, and the extent to which they would go to promote my work. It seemed like a fair proposition.

At this point, I did go online before signing and tried to find out a little more about this publisher and found a range of mixed reviews including words like ‘vanity publishing’ being bandied about and some warning bells definitely rang, but they were overridden by the excitement of getting my book out into the world, particularly onto an international stage, as promised in the contract. So I paid the money and hoped for the best.

And what was your experience of them?

Once signed up, I quickly became aware that the cost did not reflect the effort of the publisher. I supplied my own illustrations but was given no discount for this, which was interesting as illustrations were listed as part of the costs I was helping to cover with my own contribution.

The upbeat emails kept on coming and I felt a real sense of anticipation in waiting to see my book published. I was excited when I received an email saying that I had a couple of newspaper interviews, and a radio interview followed, then there was some email support to help organise a book launch – it all seemed to be going well.

Then there were problems with the books arriving in time for the launch, and the problem of getting the book on the shelves of any New Zealand bookshop. I was told that the book would go into all the major catalogues that bookshops buy from, but no bookshops picked it up, and although our local bookshop wanted to stock my book, they found it very difficult to get my book supplied to them. After some time I purchased the book directly myself and they sold it on my behalf.

I was also promised that my book would be placed on some high profile digital sites such as Amazon and Fishpond, and it was. However, on closer investigation, there was only ever one in stock in each place, and when I enquired I was told that this was quite normal and that it would be made available. A couple of my overseas friends tried several times to order a copy online from these sites but were always just told that the book was out of stock. It makes me wonder if it ever was truly available. When I asked about issues such as online availability, or what had happened to the promised promotion of my book, i.e. book signing opportunities, I was given fairly non-committal answers.

Apart from the initial publicity and my book and profile being placed on their home site, nothing further was done either to promote my book or to assist in any way. When I emailed asking questions, I had a range of different people replying who were going to look into my situation, but apart from a few friendly emails which said very little of substance, that was all as far as assistance.

Then, earlier this year I got a letter saying that my book was going to be remaindered, as it had not had sufficient sales. They offered to sell me the remainder of the books, but with the currency exchange and high postage charged, I decided not to give them any more of my money and to publish in New Zealand – something I wish in hindsight that I had done initially – and allow the last copies to be destroyed.

In hindsight, were there any warning signs?

Right from the beginning, there were warning signs. They had a clause in their contract that says you cannot speak against them. I can’t remember the wording, but it is pretty specific. It seemed a bit unusual at the time.

Many people said to me that any publisher asking for money was a bit suspect, but receiving the letter to say that my book was worth publishing was such an exciting opportunity that I suppose I was too hopeful for my own good. Having seen how hard it was to get a publisher to accept new manuscripts meant that I didn’t hold out much hope for other options, and I hadn’t yet heard about the self-publishing pathway. It wasn’t until I spoke to someone who had self-published through The CopyPress, and told me how easy it was, that I realised I could have published in New Zealand for half the price and had my book readily available to New Zealand outlets at a reduced price.

I have written a series of self-help picture books which I felt, and still feel, belong in circulation for as many at-risk children as possible, so I took my second title and published it through The CopyPress, and haven’t looked back. When my initial book, Invisible Elephants, was remaindered, I was actually relieved. I wanted to keep my series together under one publisher, and this meant that I had the freedom to cut my ties and move both books to The CopyPress.

What has your experience been like since going the independent publishing route in New Zealand?

I have been really happy with switching to The CopyPress, and just wish I had known about it to begin with. I have been very well treated, and am delighted with the way my second book, Living with the Lions, has been treated. The illustrations and layout of the text have been particularly well done. I am now looking forward to seeing my first book treated in the same way, and am hoping to see a more vibrant and better-developed layout in its revised format.

I am grateful to Dave and his team for the opportunity to have a genuinely ‘Kiwi’ publishing experience. Their knowledge of publishing and of the local market coupled with their Kiwi professionalism and integrity have gone a long way to getting things back on track for me.

What advice would you give to others who are looking at overseas options?

Don’t! Your best option is to publish within New Zealand, whether it is by self-publishing, or if you are lucky enough, by breaking into the traditional publishing market. Either way, home-grown publishing is by far the best option.

Red flags

Not every overseas company is going to be like the one Susan dealt with. Knowing these warning signs will allow you to make an educated decision about publishing:

  • A publisher promising to publish you right away. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • The ‘publisher’ asks for a 50% fee up-front claiming they will cover the other half.
  • The contract includes anything suspect like a clause disallowing you from speaking out against the company.
  • A lack of evidence of the kind of marketing they plan to do. If you’re paying for marketing services you should know exactly what those services are.
  • A lack of evidence that they are producing quality books that are selling well. Ask for case studies of success stories and take a look at books they have published in the past.
  • A lack of clarity around additional costs (e.g. changes to your manuscript). Again, you should always know exactly where your dollars are going. Ask ahead of time if there are charges for manuscript changes or any hidden costs.

Susan Smith is the author of Living with the Lions and Invisible Elephants, allegories about real-life issues. Both are available through The CopyPress.

This interview was first published in Self Publishing in New Zealand by H.L. Kennedy in 2019.

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