Three years ago, Hazel Gaynor could not get a publisher. Last night, she scooped the Romantic Novelists’ Association Award for Historical Fiction, having already become a New York Times Best-selling Author and a USA Today Best-seller. Here is her inspirational story of determination, hard work, self-belief and a refusal to give up on her dream:
How long had you been trying to get traditionally published before you chose the self-publishing route?
I’d been through the submission process with three different books, over three consecutive years. I started writing seriously in 2009, following redundancy, and I self-published my first novel, The Girl Who Came Home in 2012, so although at the time it all felt very painful and frustrating, in hindsight I realise that I took my first steps as a published author relatively quickly.
Was there one particular incident that decided you to try self-publishing? If so, what?
Yes. It was ultimately the forthcoming centenary of the sinking of Titanic in April 2012 that gave me the final push. As an unknown author with a novel about the Titanic, I knew I had to have the book ready for then to stand a good chance of getting noticed. My agent had suggested self-publishing after the book had been rejected by traditional publishers and I was also fortunate to have some great friends to help and advise along the way. Catherine Ryan Howard was particularly brilliant and really helped to steer me in the right direction and avoid unnecessary pitfalls. My family was also hugely encouraging and really pushed me to go for it. I really had nothing to lose by trying.
Were you nervous?
I was absolutely terrified! Self-publishing a book that had been rejected by ‘the experts’ seemed like a ridiculous thing to do on one level but I just couldn’t put it away. I really believed I had written a book that people would enjoy and I was so passionate about the story that I felt frustrated by the prospect of it lurking under my bed forevermore. I felt that the only way I could move on from that book and write another was to get it out there to readers. Self-publishing was the obvious choice.
What was your biggest fear?
That readers wouldn’t like the book. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t been well-received. I suspect I would have continued to write the next book and start all over again anyway – either that or crawl into a very large hole! Fortunately, my fears were unfounded.
At the time, did you feel that if you took the self-publishing route it would close the door to traditional publishers?
No. I just felt that it was now or never for this particular book and the decision was made. I’d heard conflicting views on whether or not a self-published author was a no-go for traditional publishers but I’d also heard of self-published authors going on to get traditional deals. When it came down to it, all I could do was what felt right for me at the time. I honestly didn’t expect The Girl Who Came Home to ever come back as a traditionally published book – and I cannot emphasise that enough. Self-publishing the book was a way for me to let go of it in order to make creative space for the next one. I hoped that it would be the second book that would find me a traditional deal. In the end, it was both books!
What was the hardest thing about self-publishing?
The lack of fanfare. There really wasn’t that significant ‘Ta Dah’ moment that I’d always dreamed of when I published my first book. It was all very low-key and really was a case of pressing Publish and going outside to hang the washing on the line! I said to my husband that if a hundred people downloaded the book, I would be happy. I did spend a lot of the year following self-publication feeling frustrated. I think it boiled down to a sense that I was somehow lacking in credibility, that as a self-published author I wasn’t as good as the traditionally published ones. I also found that being self-published excluded me (literally) from many interviews, appearances, competitions and other forms of publicity. That was really hard to accept at times but it also made me more determined to find other ways to be discovered and to work harder on the next book.
What was the best thing?
Gaining confidence as a writer. The success of the book gave me a huge boost and really helped me tackle my second novel, A Memory of Violets, which is, in many ways, more ambitious and was certainly more challenging to write. If I hadn’t put myself out there and taken the gamble with The Girl Who Came Home, I would never had known if my writing was any good. Getting positive reactions from readers was a significant factor in keeping going and pushed me on to keep writing and to keep trying for a traditional deal.
What was the most surprising thing?
The positive reviews. The generosity of readers with their praise and the warmth of feeling the book generated within people. I received the most amazing personal emails, many of which reduced me to tears. I’d become so caught up in the frustration of trying to get published that I’d forgotten about the readers. Their reviews and comments really made me sit back and believe that maybe I was a decent writer after all. It also made me remember why I loved writing and what this was all about.
What was the most disappointing thing?
Negative reviews. It’s impossible not to take them to heart (anyone who can is a brick!). To hear people being critical about something you have spent years working on and made many personal sacrifices for is heart-breaking but – as I now know – it is all part of the package! Experiencing this ‘under the radar’ as a quietly self-published author was, in many ways, a great place to learn and to toughen up. I was ready for the naysayers when the book came back as a traditionally published paperback!
How many books did you self-publish?
Just the one. The Girl Who Came Home.
How long did it take for things to take off?
A month. I timed the publication very carefully to coincide with the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking. I knew there would be huge media interest in Titanic and that I had a good chance of getting the book noticed if I could tap into that. I offered the book as a free download for a day and it had around 20,000 downloads. It shot up the rankings on Kindle and from then it was off and running. Once the reviews started to come in, the momentum was maintained throughout April and it became a Kindle best-seller in the Historical Fiction and Historical Romance genres. The volume of sales continued well into the summer of 2012.
Did you do anything immediately to capitalize on that?
I stopped any further free promotions after the success of the first free day as I knew people would be willing to pay for the book if there was that much interest in it. I set the price at 99c for the first five months. When sales were maintained, I increased the price to $2.99, which was still low, but which gave me a significantly higher royalty percentage.
What was the most effective promotional strategy you employed as a self-publisher?
I’d have to say it was down to the cover of the book and the timing of the publication. I had very little time for promotional activities (I have two young children) and literally zero budget, so it all came down to visibility in the Amazon rankings and tapping into the resurgence of interest in Titanic. That said, I also made sure to attend book launches and writing conferences. I connected with people through social media. I kept up my personal blogging and my guest blog for writing.ie. I reviewed other books, wrote articles for the press and contacted anyone I knew who had a blog or website that might be able to interview me or review my book. You really have to keep your eye on the ball and have your marketing and promotion hat on at all times.
The world of traditional publishing sat up and took notice of your success. How did that work? Who approached you? And in what context?
It was actually just over a year after I’d first self published The Girl Who Came Home that everything happened in terms of the traditional publishing deal. To set that into context, I’ll give a little background.
Towards the end of 2012, my second novel was submitted to around a dozen publishers in the UK and Ireland. It was rejected by all. The Girl Who Came Home was still a Kindle best-seller, selling around 80,000 copies by that time, and yet I still couldn’t find a traditional publisher. To make matters worse, at the start of January 2013, I parted company with my agent. Things were definitely not going to plan. I started to query new agents – all of whom turned me down. I continued to edit my second novel with the intention of self-publishing. In the April, The Girl Who Came Home was selected for a Kindle Romance Daily Deal and shot back up the best-seller charts. A few weeks later, I received a Facebook message from an agent based in LA. She had read The Girl Who Came Home and was interested in talking to me about representation. A week later, I received another Facebook message from another agent, based in New York. She had also read The Girl Who Came Home and was also interested in talking to me about representation. Both agents were sent my second novel and I ultimately signed with Michelle Brower from Folio Literary Management in New York. Within a matter of weeks she had secured interest from several publishers for both The Girl Who Came Home and my second novel. In June 2013, an auction was held and I signed a two-book deal with William Morrow, HarperCollins. It was agreed that The Girl Who Came Home would be re-published as a paperback and ebook in April 2014, followed by my second novel, A Memory of Violets, in February 2015. The Girl Who Came Home went on to be a New York Times and USA Today best-seller and I have subsequently signed a deal for a third novel with William Morrow.
How do the two publishing worlds compare, in your experience?
In many ways, I am doing exactly the same job – writing the book, researching, interacting with other writers and those within the industry and engaging with readers. What has changed significantly for me has been the support and experience of a team of experts. The team at William Morrow and HarperCollins has brought so much more to my writing and to the packaging, distribution and promotion of the books than I could ever have achieved on my own. When I first set out to write a novel, a traditional publishing deal was all I wanted. Having had to change my plans along the way, I now have experience of both sides of the publishing industry. Having self-published originally, I definitely think I am wiser, have thicker skin and am more realistic. It is easy for people to romanticise the profession and there is a lot of talk of dreams coming true and being lucky. While a part of me accepts that, I also believe that success really comes down to sheer hard work and determination. The luck will only happen and the dreams will only come true if the hard work and the determination come first. I am so excited to see my books published traditionally and to be working with the brilliant team at William Morrow, but I am so glad that I took the decision to self-publish initially. I took a lot from that experience.
Are you still involved in self-publishing? In what way?
No, although I still talk and write regularly about my experience of self-publishing. I spoke at the Romantic Novelists’ Association annual conference in 2014 about self-publishing. A lot of aspiring writers and published writers were very interested to hear my experience of both aspects of the publishing industry. What I always emphasise is that you shouldn’t go into self-publishing with the aim of being ‘discovered’ and offered a traditional deal. It very rarely happens and I think writers are going into it for the wrong reasons if that is their aim.
Are you still actively involved in promotion?
Absolutely. There is really no change in the amount of time or effort an author is expected to put into promoting their book when they are traditionally published. In fact, I spend more time working on promotion now than I ever did because I’m promoting the books in the USA as well as the UK and Ireland. Of course, I have the fantastic resources of the publicity and marketing team at HarperCollins and they can get me into publications and set up blog tours with a far greater reach and readership than I could ever manage on my own. But I still do a lot of work myself, looking for opportunities, approaching publications, venues, bookshops and libraries about ways in which to promote my books and engage with readers. I visited a lot of book clubs in 2014 to discuss The Girl Who Came Home and that is just one example of something I would work on myself.
What is the best piece of advice you could give someone setting out on the road to self-publishing?
Write the best book you possibly can. Get it professionally line, copy and proof edited. Get a brilliant cover design. Think about your target market for the book and how you can make them aware of it. Time your publication to coincide with any significant dates or events. Tie in to any media stories that relate to your book. Be media savvy as well as a great writer. Also, celebrate your achievements. It’s very important to mark your successes and to be your biggest fan. Self-publishing, just like writing, can be a lonely experience at times. On that note, make sure you don’t hang the washing out after finally pressing the Publish button. Open the champagne and celebrate this momentous achievement. You have written a book, and published it. That has to be an occasion worth celebrating!
Thank you, Hazel, for your honesty in sharing the secrets to your success. I love, in particular, what you say about dreams being based on hard work and determination. My own motto comes from Finding Nemo: Keep On Swimming.