Guest Post | Helen Hollick – Indie Publishing? It’s not just the writing…

I always appreciate another perspective. That’s why I asked Helen Hollick if she’d be willing to write a guest post. There’s always discussion in the blogosphere about self publishing and, oddly enough, that very discussion is who I met Helen. I said something on Goodreads about how I don’t read self published authors and Helen tracked down my email address and a day later I had a letter from her saying, basically, “That’s fine, but let me tell you why I’m self published…”

It was an absolutely fascinating email, and it changed how I look at small press and self published authors. Helen is a well known author. She’s been published by big publishing companies and now she’s also self-published. Her journey from one extreme to the other is nothing short of fascinating and gives her valuable experience and advice for individuals looking to break into publishing. Helen is a woman any potential author should pay attention to.

Helen is incredibly gracious, thoughtful and kind and I’m thrilled she was willing to write a little something for me and my humble webpage. Please welcome her warmly.

About the author

Helen writes Historical Fiction and Historical Adventure. She live in London UK on the Essex border and she is the UK Editor for the Historical Novel Society Online Review.

You can find Helen on her website, Facebook, Twitter or her blog.

Indie Publishing? It’s not just the writing…

So you want to write a novel. The plot, the characters, every detail chapter by chapter has been with you for years; but there’s never the time to actually get on and transfer the words buzzing in your head to the PC is there?

Finally you do it – 70,000 words plus. Done. Those magic, satisfactory words: ‘The End’ are added. You can sit back now, relax, send it off to a publisher and enjoy the fame and fortune when you get that fat advance, and glory in the publicity of a bestseller.

I hate to disillusion you, but writing books is not like that.

Many authors do not make enough money to pay the mortgage, let alone live on. Advances are not as large as they used to be and anyway, you have to find a publisher first. And before that, there is still a lot to do: re-drafting, editing, copy-editing…Find an agent – few publishers in the big houses accept submissions unless through an agent. The disappointment when yet another rejection slip is received.

There is, at least, an option to circumvent those reject slips. You can go Independent. The option of self publishing is now very real, and can be highly successful.

But there are buts.

There are several ‘genres’ of self publishing: the Full Monty, where you do everything yourself: registering as a small publishing company, obtaining an isbn, designing a cover, finding a printer, selling and marketing the book – many authors thoroughly enjoy the process of producing a book entirely themselves, but you have to be technical, and business, minded, and have a lot of time. Producing your book on Kindle or similar e-books is easier, but do you only want an e-book? Maybe you feel that a real book is for real authors.

So there is a compromise: find a reliable company to do all the technical stuff of producing a book for you. This is a preferable choice for most Indie writers because it leaves you time to do the marketing and to get on with writing the next book…

But hang on a minute.

You have decided to Indie Publish because of all those reject slips. Have you stopped to consider why you received so many? Why an agent did not hot-foot it to sign you up?

It is not because agents are short-sighted imbeciles who cannot read. Yes, the ‘slush pile’ is enormous, and there is a risk that your manuscript will languish there gathering dust; but agents can spot a book that is worth looking at just by reading the first paragraph. Definitely by the end of first page. If you do not hook an agent on that first page rejection slips will probably follow.

Maybe you are being rejected because your book is not as polished as it should be? Or it could be that the genre is not clear-cut enough for the big publishing houses – they do tend to like square pegs in square holes. If your historical fantasy novel come mystery thriller is a decisive round peg, then maybe that is the cause for rejection, so Indie will suit you down to the ground.

Or maybe you have some more work to do yet?

I review indie published historical fiction for the Historical Novel Society. Our aim is to improve the overall quality and standard of Independently Published historical fiction. To prove that Indie books can be every bit as good – even better than – traditional mainstream novels.

To that end, books submitted to HNS for potential review are rigorously vetted by a specific criteria, taking into account the quality of writing and editing, and the standard of production, layout and cover design. Unfortunately, many submissions do not come up to par, which is a great shame.

Judging by some of the books submitted, I am not surprised that agents reject books merely by glancing at the first page. The instant first impression is that it is poorly written. Everyone can write a book, not everyone can write a readable book.

As UK Review Editor this is what I initially look for. (An agent will do exactly the same):

Impression of standard – I want to be hooked into the story at the first line. Don’t start with ‘It was…’, nor your character waking from a dream. Both are instant turn-offs.

Overuse of ‘Point of View’ changes – ‘head hopping’ from character to character is confusing.

Overuse of ‘Tell’ not ‘Show’ – this is the knack of being a good writer; the ability to make it seem that the reader is watching a ‘mind movie’ and is an invisible observer, being there in the story, not being told it from the side lines.

Overuse of ‘Author’s Voice’ – the author’s voice can clearly be heard. Sentences such as ‘But Rose was not to know that yet, she would find out soon.’ is author’s voice.

Punctuation, grammar, spelling and typing errors.

Obvious continuity errors – I have found books where even the main character’s name has changed half way through!

So what it comes down to, if you want your book to sell (which is the main idea behind writing it) and you decide to Indie Publish, it is up to you to ensure the book is well written, professionally edited and produced to a quality mainstream standard.

Editing is not an ‘add on extra’.  It is an essential part of producing a novel. And no, your Aunt who used to be a teacher, or friend who is a secretary cannot edit your book. They can proof read it – the final stage to pick up those missed typos and spelling errors, they might even be able to copy edit it for grammar and punctuation, but unless they are an experienced professional editor they will have little idea of the technique of writing – picking up on author’s voice, P.O.V., changes; anachronisms, too many adjectives, adverbs, poor continuity. The list of what an editor does is extensive.

Writers often say to me. ‘Editors are expensive, I can’t afford it.’ Fine, but consider this: can you afford not to have an editor?

Do you really want your book out there full of embarrassing errors?

The same applies to producing your book. If you use a reliable, professional company to design, type set your book etc, then you should be alright (but there are a lot of not so good companies out there – check and double check what they do/do not offer!)

Here is a list of reasons why I reject an Indie book regarding layout :

Incorrect Text/ font – large text is not such a problem, but many readers do not like small print. The font is your choice, but I would suggest you stick to the established fonts : Times New Roman, Arial, etc. Comic Sans is not regarded as professional.

Incorrect indents and line spacing – The first line of a chapter should not be indented, following opening lines of paragraphs should be. Unless it is a deliberate line break, spacing should be single spaced, not double.

Incorrect justification – have you ever seen a traditional mainstream novel with an uneven margin on the right hand side? Text must be set as fully justified i.e. with even margin both sides.

Inconsistent layout – you have blank pages in the middle of a chapter? Why? The text at the bottom of the page is higher/lower than the opposite page, creating a ragged appearance.

Incorrect page numbering – UK novels usually have page numbers at the bottom, US at the top.

Widows and Orphans: no professionally produced book will have a single sentence on the last page of a chapter, or even worse, a single word. (unless it is deliberate) Good editing at proof read stage should sort this.

Cover design – get a professional designer. Believe me, it is worth it. Nothing screams ‘amateur self publish’ more than an amateurish cover.


Bottom line? Whether you are looking for an agent and publisher, or decide to go Independent then think Quality all the time. Don’t send your precious work out looking like a raggedy, unkempt scarecrow. Polish it, produce it professionally – enable it to shine. You have the choice of producing a poor book, a good book or a great book.

I know what one of the three I would prefer to read.

For tips on writing that great book:

Discovering the Diamond by Helen Hollick and Jo Field.

Available on Kindle :

UK £1.54

US $2.54

Helen’s Website:

Helen’s Blog:

(with an article on why I went Indie in the UK)

HNS Reviews: we accept all  Historical Fiction  Full details and submission guidelines:

Helen will be available to talk about going Self Publish at the HNS London 2012 Conference from 28th – 30th September 2012

6 Responses

  • Thank you for inviting me onto your blog Sarah…
    and for supporting Indie Authors.

    To sum up – if you want to self publish, make sure you do it properly. After all, your book deserves to be produced to the highest quality you can achieve doesn’t it?

  • I’ve just discovered your wise words on facebook, Helen. Not only do you champion Indie authors but you have the time to listen to what they say…

  • James Grant Goldin

    Yeeeps…I didn’t non-indent on the first line of the first chapters of my pirate novel…Partly because I was playing around with amusing chapter sub-headings and I didn’t want the page to look too busy. Same reason I didn’t use the dropped-capital option. But I admit that reading that section of your excellent article did make my blood run cold. Well, we’ll see about indenting for the sequel…I do have an American HNS reviewer and we’ll see if she shoots me down for that.

    Good advice for us all. I did find that self-publishing presented technical issues that were, in their way, as difficult as the “creative” work! It helps you realize that there’s purpose and thought and choice in every produced item.

  • Thank you Marilyn – I listen because people listened and helped me when I firast started out. Listening to others is my way of saying thank you.

    James – I doubt you will be rejected because you have indented a first line (text wrongly justified is a different matter) As long as all chapters open the same way, so your spacing is consistent.
    A pirate novel eh? Hmm… I’ll have to look out for that one!

  • James Grant Goldin

    Well….it’s called “The Legendary Adventures of the Pirate Queens: A Serio-Comic Novel of Anne Bonny & Mary Read” and it should be available on Amazon UK…Right margins are indeed justified and the page numbers happen to be on the bottom. 🙂

    (Many years ago I briefly had a job as a proofreader for Price, Stern Sloan and I do take all this very seriously, despite any light-heartedness. Even though almost every book I’ve ever read has had at least one small error — often a printer’s error — these things do make me cringe when I do it.)

  • James – I think a novel without any typos nowadays is probably rare, but a small scatter of thot instead of that , or a missed “, or a , not a . is acceptable. Nor are misplaced commas the huge crime that some “reviewers” claim them to be. Errors on almost every page, poor sentence structure, repeated words (how about using ‘answered’ or ‘stated’ instead of a constant stream of ‘said’?) and careless presentation is a different matter.

    I have these sort of mistakes in the first editions of my books when I went Indie with a small company that now no longer exists because it went broke (not surprisingly!) Wrong font, wrong justification, uncorrected typos – but I have learnt from my mistakes. I once thought “Surely it is the story that matters? Does anyone notice if the text is set out wrong?”
    The answer is yes they do, and no it is not just the story. If you expect someone to buy your book for probably, around £10 ($13?) you should ensure they are going to get a good bargain, something of quality, not something cobbled together. And actually this also applies to traditional mainstream – I sometimes wonder, do publishing houses no longer employ copy-editors?
    What I do find alarming is the number of Indie authors who throw a strop when errors such as incorrect justification are pointed out. Too often I get a “does it matter” or “that is how I want it” response. Fine, if you want your book to look unprofessionally produced that is up to you, but if you cannot be bothered to put things right, then why should I bother to review it?

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