Guest blog: Elaine Brown on Self Publishing

Elaine Brown and I first met when she asked me what I thought of her first pony novel, Jackie's Pony Secret, then unpublished. I read it and loved it, and have watched Elaine's progress ever since. Elaine has followed up Pony Secret with another novel, and after several nearly-there episodes with publishers, has decided to go it alone. This is the story of how she did it.

Elaine's books are:

Jackie's Pony Secret
The Ponies of Penstorran

and you can follow Elaine on her website:

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Books were a large part of my childhood. My older sister and my mother used to read to me every night at bedtime - more, I think, in the interests of getting me to sleep than anything else as I was a poor sleeper. However, I was told that they would often fall asleep themselves but I would still be awake. It wasn’t long before I started reading for myself and I was able to read quite fluently at a very pre-school age. I was fascinated by words and how they clung together to make a sentence, a paragraph and then a story. One of my most treasured possessions was a children’s dictionary and I would look up words I hadn’t heard before and then use them liberally.

I have written for as long as I can remember. When I was still quite small I used to write short stories, poems and songs. English was really the only class I bothered with in school and I managed to pass my English O’ level a year early: just as well really, as I didn’t stay at school to take any others (you were allowed to leave school at 15 in those days and O’ levels were generally taken at age 16).

Writing went on the back burner when I was a teenager – horses and boys were much too fascinating. I was also a swimmer and much of my free time was spent in the local baths, honing up for competitions. I still always read though. Bedtime always saw me with a book in my hands and my reading matter was very catholic.

In my late twenties the writing bug hit me again. I started submitting short stories and articles to magazines, mainly about cats and other domestic pets, reader’s tips and reader’s letters. It wasn’t something I did seriously, but rather for the fun of it; seeing my name in print and being paid a small amount of money. I used to get about £10 for a reader’s letter or tip and around £50 for an article. I was also working for a large employment agency at the time and it occurred to me that our numerous temps might like to know what went on at ‘headquarters’ and to feel more part of a team. I started up a monthly newsletter, which was very well received. Time and time again I was told “you should write a book.” That was all well and good, but you needed to have an idea and I didn’t. “Write what you know” was another recurring theme; horses, obviously, but I didn’t have a plot.

When my son was born I desperately wanted to be at home with him but I had to go back to work. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice, it was a necessity because I am the wage earner in my family. I used to come home every evening and my son and I would cuddle up on the sofa and read while my husband cooked. Tell The Time with Winnie the Pooh was a favourite. We still have that book, carefully looked after. I racked my brains to think of something I could do from home but ideas eluded me, at least those that were in any way sensible. Then, when my son was a few months old, a family tragedy occurred. My step daughter-in-law died and left three children aged 11, 9 and 2. The children were farmed out to various family members and it got me thinking about the different turns life takes and what alternatives there might have been. From this small kernel a series of books – The Pony Chronicles - was born. For a while I scribbled on the train and produced a book which, frankly, wasn’t that good. It was far too short and galloped through itself at a rate of knots. I needed to slow down and put some meat on the bones. I read through carefully and first of all noticed that there was very little descriptive narrative. I could see the characters and the scenes so clearly in my mind that I had assumed the reader could see them too. I’m not a fan of reading pages of description so I was careful to add it in carefully and make it flow with the general plot so that it read naturally. Then I realised that Jackie went from one “adventure” to another without any space for the mundanities of eating, going to school or other activities so I went back over it again. Gradually the book took shape and became much more readable. I have recently gone back to it again to do some re-writing. I did say I was never going to read it again at one point, but that seems to have gone by the board!

Jackie’s Pony Secret features 11 year old Jackie who is sent to live with her Grandfather and his second wife on a farm in Devon. It’s a huge change for a girl who had been brought up in South East London, and I have tried to combine contemporary social issues, instruction on horse-riding and stable management, and also incorporate an element of adventure.

I looked into various options for getting Jackie published and readied it to send off to a publisher. I struck lucky on my first attempt. The publisher liked the way I wrote. However she was worried that the books might be similar to a line they were already running, and she wanted to see the second in the series. I got down to writing immediately. Sadly, it took a long time. The death of both my parents and a move to a different part of the UK stalled the process. By the time I had finished the second book – Ponies at Penstorran - and sent it off to the publishers the lady who was interested had moved on and her successor sent me the standard rejection letter. In retrospect I should probably have included the letter from her predecessor, but we live and learn.

I tried several other publishers. I had some rejections but also some minor successes. Some were quite rude – a one line email saying “not for us”, for example. One wrote that she loved the book but didn’t feel strongly enough about it to do it justice and I should look for a more specialised publisher. I put the book away in a drawer for a couple of years.

It is worth mentioning that during this period I stayed firmly away from reading any kind of pony book. I have a horror of inadvertently absorbing someone else’s idea and regurgitating it at some time in the future. I still don’t read books that are similar to mine for this reason. However, I have now gone back to reading pony books and have rediscovered the joys of Ruby Ferguson, the Pullein-Thompson sisters and Mary Gervaise. I have also discovered quite a few excellent indie authors and have enjoyed their books. It’s a mystery to me why these people haven’t been picked up by publishers.

Months, even several years passed, before I decided to go on with my project and started sending Jackie out again. Writing a book is certainly not a five minute project. Like raising a child, it takes patience, understanding and rethinking things. Situations and times change and Jackie was first written in the late 1990s – a time when most people did not have home PCs and mobile phones were almost unheard of.

The first publisher I sent it to expressed interest. I waited and waited but nothing happened. More than a year went by and still nothing happened. I am not the sort of person who pesters other people and my occasional emails were met with the answer that it was still in the pipeline. Eventually I got fed up and rang them. It turned out nothing was going to be imminent, probably for a couple of years!

Around that time Kindle raised its head above the parapet. I decided to go along the self-publishing route for several reasons. I was impatient to get my baby ‘out there’. I was getting older and was beginning to feel that if my books were ever published, it would be posthumously. I also wanted to test the water and see if my books had legs, rather than relying on friends to say that they were good – you only have to watch Britain’s Got Talent to see where that leads! Early signs were encouraging but a lot of people were asking when the book would be out in physical form – they neither had nor wanted an e-reader and I started to think about publishing the book as a paperback. 

For a long while I put it off. ISBN numbers are a major outlay for me, for a start. They can generally only be bought in batches of 10 and cost over £100. There are other ways, such as going through a vanity publisher, to get an ISBN number but after some research I decided this avenue was not for me. I have a number of books - written and in the planning stage - so it would have made financial sense to buy my own. The printing was another cost, but I am lucky enough to know someone who has published a book and he pointed me in the direction of a printer who was not only reasonable but very helpful. Another cost that normally has to be taken into account is the book cover design. Websites recommend you put aside £350 for this alone. Again, I am lucky enough to be married to an artist (whether he considers it lucky or not I’m not too sure) and he is happy to do my covers for me. I did have some good ideas for marketing – having been in marketing at one time - and thought I could probably manage to sell my book.

Fortunately, someone talked sense into me. I have two jobs, I am a volunteer for my local Cats Protection branch, I am a registered chaperone for children in entertainment for my local council, I am trying to help my husband with his prospective business and also get my son set on his career path. Most weekends are spent doing mundane jobs around the house. I fall into bed, exhausted, every evening, and I barely have time to write. How on earth did I think I was going to have time to market the books? I also suffer from chronic depression and generalised anxiety disorder. There are days I just can’t function and, if you are trying to run a business that will inevitably involve having a thick skin and knocking on doors, it isn’t a winning formula.

So now I am back to having a major re-think. I’m re-writing my first book, Jackie’s Pony Secret, as I was never happy with the beginning. It is certainly very true to what happened when my stepdaughter-in-law died, but it is rather dreary reading. Curiously, I am also writing an adult book. It didn’t start out that way. My husband has often said I should try writing an adult book as the children’s book market is notoriously hard to crack. I used to tell him that my mind just doesn’t work that way. I have enough trouble understanding why people do what they do anyway, never mind writing a story with a plot and a good beginning and ending. Somehow, though, it is happening. What started off as a stand-alone children’s book took a mysterious turn and wandered off on its own, which does tend to happen when I write! The Horses of Streatham Hill focuses on 18 year old Nick and is set in the 1970s. It follows Nick’s journey from cramped tenement to dealer’s yard to becoming a professional rider. It isn’t a traditional pony story, although there are horses in it. It is more a ‘coming of age’ book (if that isn’t too hackneyed a phrase). I must say I am enjoying writing it and hope it will be finished by early Spring.

I still have hopes that I can make a moderate amount of money from writing – at least enough to work part time and devote more time to my writing and to my son. It hasn’t happened yet, but who knows?

Self publishing has, for me, been a rewarding experience. It has given me the confidence that my books are worthy of notice and that I am right to continue. Certainly I have met some nasty people, who were scathing about my work and told me I would get nowhere. I am a bit of a sensitive bunny and don’t deal very well with this sort of thing. On the plus side I have met some lovely people whose help has been invaluable. They have held my hand and pulled me back up during my black dog moments. They have swept up the pieces and put them back together. They have given me advice from the position of actual knowledge of the industry. They have also given me a well-aimed kick up the backside when I needed it. They know who they are. My little triumvirate family now has several shoots branching off from it – each one labelled ‘friends’. Thank you.

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As the author of 5 children's books, I know it can be difficult. There are always critics, but in my experience, perseverance is the key to success. Best wishes in all of your endeavors.
Ellen Feld said…
Nice post - thanks for sharing!
Elaine Brown said…
Thank you.

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