7 Lessons Learned From Self-Publishing A Book That Was Previously Traditionally Published

    Categories: Publishing Options

OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn

If you have back-list books from being traditionally published, you’re going to want to read this post!

Bring new life to your book

Lorna Fergusson explains the lessons she’s learned in self-publishing The Chase.

Here’s a moment: I’m in Soho, London, on a summer’s day.

I’ve been treated to an excellent lunch and a signing-tour of London bookshops by my publisher, Bloomsbury. It’s been, as you can imagine, one of those rare days, those days when every effort, every knockback, every long dark night of the soul seems worth it. It’s publication day. My editor is wonderful. My book-cover is gorgeous. My publishers are respected. Everything is perfect.

Except for one thing: like a fool, I’ve forgotten my camera. So I ring up, a couple of days later, to ask if somebody can take a photo of the lavish display of The Chasemy novel! – in Bloomsbury’s window.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ comes the answer, ‘it’s somebody else’s book in there now.’

Lesson learned from traditional publishing: how brief one’s moment in the window is.

Pre-publication, there’s a long build-up where marketing and publicity plans and promises are made – some are followed through. The book appears, but it’s being pushed from behind by the next one … and the next. Like Bede’s sparrow flying through a brightly-lit hall, it passes from darkness to darkness.

So, in the fullness of time The Chase progresses from hardback to paperback … to out of print. My editor leaves Bloomsbury. My agent retires. The publishing industry goes through huge changes. Digital publishing arrives.

More than ten years on from that day in Soho, I decide to take charge of my own fortunes.

I retrieve my rights – a protracted process – and set about republishing my story under my own imprint, Fictionfire Press. The Chase is mine again. Scary. Exciting. Utterly fulfilling.

After several months of frenetic activity, The Chase is out in the world once more, as an ebook and a paperback. I’m now getting ready to bring out a collection of short stories … then there’s the thriller that’s been languishing, two-thirds complete …

The bit is well and truly between my teeth.

So, what have I learned from the self-publishing experience? So many things – among them these key lessons:

No book need die

Of course, The Chase was never really dead; people had it on their bookshelves. You could still dredge it up on Amazon and Abebooks, secondhand. But it had had its moment in the sun. I felt distant from it, as if I were no longer the person who’d written it. Now, with the ‘long tail’ of e-commerce, the ease of downloading books, the convenience of print on demand, my novel can enjoy a second life. This is the kind of flexibility of access and supply none of us could even have dreamed of a few short years ago.

If you’re going to self-publish, you need to do it right

That means being professional and taking responsibility for your work. This is your baby – don’t send it out in rags and with a snotty nose. I discovered the enormous satisfaction to be had from commissioning a beautiful cover (thanks, Jane Dixon-Smith of www.jdsmith-design.co.uk!) and having the text properly formatted for both the ebook and paperback versions (thanks again Jane!).

You need to be prepared to pay for certain services if you’re not able to cope on your own or if you’re not prepared to take the time to learn. I was happy to edit my own work (it’s part of my profession, after all) but formatting is beyond me. So I paid for that. I wanted a cover that readers would want to reach out and touch: I paid for that too. As an independent publisher you need to be answerable to your work and to your readership: treat both with respect.

Words are not set in stone anymore

Digital publication means that your text is more like a palimpsest: even after publication you can unpublish, erase and adapt as you wish before republishing. As I was bringing The Chase out on Kindle in the first instance I edited the original opening, making it briefer and pacier, knowing that readers often download that free sample section and make a buying decision based on it.

You need help

Truly. If you’re going to go into the self-publishing game, you will need support – and the extraordinary and joyous thing is that there’s such a lot of support around, from individual writers who’ll share their experience and recommendations, through to organisations such as the Alliance of Independent Authors. I joined ALLi when it launched in spring 2012 and have found membership invaluable. I can ask questions on the ALLi Facebook page and a stream of helpful advice will flow. I’ve met many wonderful people, including novelist Linda Gillard who was the first to tell me I should republish The Chase and set me on this indie-publishing path.

I’ve consulted Ali Luke’s clear and user-friendly Publishing E-books in the For Dummies series, ALLi’s Choosing a Self-Publishing Service, David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible, plus Joanna Penn’s excellent new How to Market a Book. I’ve followed so many blogs – from The Creative Penn to Catherine Ryan Howard’s Catherine, Caffeinated (don’t even think of applying for your EIN or ITIN number from the American IRS service without the crucial post about it on her blog!)

The learning never stops and the To-Do List never shortens!

I’m still trying to get to grips with the Byzantine complexities of Goodreads … I don’t have a Pinterest board yet … I need to get my paperback into bookshops. You just have to keep checking those items off the list, even when two more spring up for every one you deal with …

Sometimes you need to step back

The constant sense that you should be selling can weigh heavy, so it’s important know when to back off from social media, when to be silent, when to let the well fill – because after all, you do have other books to write, don’t you!

Have you got a backlist you could re-publish? Do you have any questions about this or anything to do with self-publishing when you’ve been traditionally published before? Please do leave a comment below.

Lorna Fergusson is the author of The Chase, available in print and ebook editions.

Lorna has taught creative writing for many years, including for Oxford University’s various writing programmes. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize and was a finalist in the Historical Novel Society’s short story prize 2012. Currently her unpublished children’s novel Hinterland is on the shortlist of four for Pan Macmillan’s Write Now Prize, so she hopes her future will be that of a hybrid author, part traditionally published, part indie!

Lorna’s literary consultancy is at www.fictionfire.co.uk and her blog about the business of books and the writing life is at http://literascribe.blogspot.com. You can sign up to be updated about her publications at www.fictionfirepress.com.

Follow her on Twitter at @LornaFergusson and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LornaFergussonAuthor

Top image: Flickr Creative Commons CookieMonster New Life

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View Comments (47)

  • Good post. I checked out my contracts for essays published in anthologies and since they had expired, have been preparing them for singles on Amazon. I've already published a novel and am preparing another for publication this fall. I definitely hired a designer for the cover. I used a template for the interior on book version (POD) and am thinking that I might have someone help me with the formatting for the new one. I like the idea of hybrid publishing. What fits best for a particular book project.

    • Absolutely right: we can choose with each individual project what the best path is.

  • Hi Lorna,

    I love your post and that you were able to breathe new life back into your book so that more people can continue to enjoy it! I do have a question for you. I self published a non fiction book - The Pinocchio Principle: Becoming the Leader You Were Meant to Be back in 1/2011. The paperback version of the book is listed on Amazon (POD). For whatever reason, I didn't feel moved to promote it extensively back then (and as a result I didn't sell many), but have felt a renewed energy around it lately and am eager to promote it (and the messages in it) now. I just finished creating the ebook version for Kindle and am getting ready to upload it.

    The thought occurred to me that this might be a good time to update some of the chapters and even change the title - I always wished I would have called it the Pinocchio Principle: Becoming a Real Leader. Would that make it a second edition? And if I do, what does that mean for the print version that is currently offered on Amazon? I don't really want to go through all the work right now with a layout designer and the POD people to do a second edition paperback version - but I don't know that I want to pull what is currently being sold there in case people want to order a hard copy.

    Would you recommend uploading the ebook version of the original edition in addition to a revised second edition ebook version? Or better to just bite the bullet and take the original edition off the market entirely? Any suggestions or advice you have would be most appreciated.

  • I have a book that has sold well since it's first publication in 2007. The contract is up now and I'm thinking about self-publishing it. My publisher does a lot of promoting for her authors but I'm thinking why am I stuffing their pockets when I could be stuffing my own. In your opinion, would the book continue to sell as well?

    • Hi Mary - this is dependent on so many things!
      For example, what channel are the book sales through right now? if you're selling print in bookstores, you will struggle as an indie as most of us make 90% of income through ebooks. Will you need to take the book down from Amazon in the original version and republish and in the process lose all reviews and rankings? What marketing does your publisher do that you can't, or don't want to do?
      Basically, I would expect a dip at changeover - but you have to decide if it is worth losing a % of sales initially, and potentially make more money in the long run - BUT only if you will continue the type of marketing that enables it to continue to sell right now. Indie is a not a panacea for everything, for sure, we all work really hard on marketing/promotion to keep sales going. Ultimately, it's your decision, so all the best!

  • Thanks for this, very interesting. My experience chimes with that of so many others. It really is worth getting hold of the rights to your backlist and self publishing those titles. In my field (educational non fiction) it is often the case that sales of older titles slow, but with a revamp and a new cover, they can be re-released afresh.

    I've learned so much in the process, including how much fun it is to have more creative control over things like covers. I also love the fact that I can keep a close eye on sales and figure out how to tweak the marketing and look at the impact that might have. I would also recommend elance as a great site on which to find freelance graphic designers who can help you create great covers. I work closely these days with a freelancer in Pakistan who is doing wonderful work for me.

  • Hi Joanna, great post. I'm curious what you did about ISBN and providing the following: original publication date, copyright year, and library of congress control number.

    In order to properly register the new ISBN you would need those things. Did you use the "first" original dates or the new dates? Did you get a new library of congress control number? If so, how did you go about it since usually you can not get one on a previously published book.

    Thank you for any insight you can provide!


    • Hi Deanna - this comment is for Lorna - it's her guest post :) hopefully she will pop in and answer. Thanks.

  • Hi Joanna. Deanna's question is exactly the one I'm trying to answer. If my book was traditionally published in 2002, but I've got the rights back and am republishing it, can I use the original LCCN? Or should I apply for a new one? (Can a book HAVE 2 LCCNs?)

    And should I pay someone to do new cataloging info for the new book?

    Can't find these answers clearly stated anywhere. Many thanks!

    • I'm sorry but I don't know about the Library of Congress since that is an American thing. I would expect that you'd need new everything if you are now republishing as it shouldn't be under the publishers name, but I'd check with http://www.HelenSedwick.com for these type of questions. She's a US lawyer :)

  • An author I do promotion for is leaving her publisher and going to self-publish and wants to call her new self-pub book Second Edition. Is this OK? We were told "second edition" comes from the same publisher and is revised or updated. Thanks!!

    • Second Edition does mean changes in the actual book. Otherwise people might buy it again and be disappointed. Why not just change the cover as well as the publisher?

  • I wish to republish my poetry book myself. It was previously published by Lapwing, a Belfast publisher in 1998 and I am asserted as the copyright holder. However, in the legal notice in the book it says that no part of the publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from Lapwing. I am confused. Does this mean I have to get their permission to republish my book?

    • In 2016, my article on nuclear weapons in North Korea, etc. was published in a journal that specializes in North Korea. I got paid. Then in 2017, when the chance of nuclear war with North Korea could easily have become a reality, I contacted the publisher for permission to republish my article in a national security journal. They said no.

      • It makes sense they would say no. They paid you for the rights to that article, so if you check the contract, it might say it was, essentially, work for hire, and you gave them all rights to the work. But check the contract to be sure.

  • Thanks, that's a helpful list of resources! I, too, like being closer to my work & am doing indie publishing. Question! I am re-publishing a book that was published in 2003. The acknowledgments point to resources (such as my website) that are no longer valid. Do I write a whole new acknowledgement page, and scrap the old? I'm no longer in touch with many of the people from the first book, but feel I should not remove them, just because this book is being re-released so many years later. How have you handled this?

  • I have inherited my fathers books and more than 25 years since his death should mean his old publisher has no claim to the works, but what about the illustrators copyright? I intend to republish. I am in the UK, the books were also available in the US.

    • You'd need to check the contract with the illustrator, as it's likely that the publisher had the contract with the illustrator, NOT your father. Also, if he signed a contract for "life of copyright," which many authors do, then that lasts 70 years after his death. Best thing to do would be to contact the publisher and start a process of getting the rights back, especially if they are out of print, but I'd say it's unlikely the illustrations were his copyright. Worth checking though!