Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Dear Dylan

STOP PRESS: May 12th - Dear Dylan is on the long list (of 12) of the Young Minds Book Awards! I hope this will inspire other self publishing authors. You can get more info about the comp at www.youngminds.org.uk

Many of you will know Siobhan Curham as the author of the fantastic self-publishing column in The Writers' Forum. Others of you may know her through the super Literature Lounge, one of London's coolest literary nights. But she is also a great author, and recently turned down a deal with a mainstream publisher to self-publish her new book Dear Dylan, which explores what happens when a fourteen year old girl turns to the internet for solace and strikes up a correspondence with a stranger. I had the chance to ask her all about it. Oh, and to get your hands on Dear Dylan, just go here.

I'm intrigued by the self-publishing angle. I have three mini questions about it. I wonder if you'd be prepared to say a bit about the deal you turned down; could you explain why you chose self-publishing for this book; and will you be seeking a mainstream publisher in the future?

After my three novels with Hodder I had been left feeling a little disillusioned with the traditional publishing world. Although I will always be hugely grateful to them for publishing my books I was left feeling very confused and upset by the lack of support they gave me when it came to the marketing of my books. I have subsequently discovered that this is quite a common occurrence with the large publishing houses and they only seem to put a substantial marketing budget behind an author once they have established a decent sized readership. Anyway, this experience and the rise of self-publishing led to me choosing to self-publish my fourth novel, Finding the Plot back in 2007. My reasoning was that if I was expected to do all of my own marketing anyway would I be that much worse off going it alone? Shortly after I finished Dear Dylan a friend told me that a traditional publisher was looking for new writers for its young adult list, so on a whim I emailed the opening pages and synopsis to the commissioning editor. She got back to me straight away asking to see the whole book and within a week I had been offered a book deal. I was over the moon to get such a quick and positive response from the first person I had sent it to. In the end I was offered a deal for two books. I felt I had built up a very good rapport with the editor and that she really understood me as a writer. However, I was hugely disappointed when I finally received a contract and saw that my advance and royalties were substantially lower than I had been promised. It was the first time I had represented myself rather than going through my agent and it was a real eye-opener. Thankfully I had my contracts from Random House and Hodder to compare it with so, using them as a guide, I sent back an amended version more in line with what I felt I deserved. The publishers upped their offer but it was still nowhere near what I felt it ought to be. A friend of mine who works at United Agents said that publishers will always try and take advantage of authors acting on their own; it was standard practise. This made me really angry. It seemed to be yet another example of authors being shoddily treated in order for publishers to make a quick buck. I know I could have continued to haggle or even taken the book elsewhere but I really didn’t have the stomach for it. Back when I started out as a writer I had very little self confidence and was so grateful just to be published I put up with being poorly treated but not any more. So I withdrew Dear Dylan and took stock for a while, trying to decide what to do next. Then it hit me - I had written Dear Dylan to try and help people going through difficult times in their lives, it had never been about making money or a name for myself, so why not give it away for free? As self-publishing editor for Writers’ Forum magazine I had been really inspired by a writer called David Moody who had given away his first novel as a free download and ended up getting half a million readers. What if I could do the same with Dear Dylan? As soon as the idea took hold I knew it was the right way to go – giving the book away seemed totally in keeping with the ethos behind it and it felt liberating to stick two fingers up at the publishers who had quite frankly been happy to shaft me financially. I would never say never when it comes to traditional publishers in the future, but for now I am happy to self publish as it feels like a far more positive and proactive option.

Could you explain why you chose to self-publish with Authorhouse, and what the package they provided you with involves?

I chose AuthorHouse because they were the self-publishing company I had used for Finding the Plot and I had found them to be extremely professional and reliable. I went for their standard package, which costs around £800. This price includes turning your manuscript into a book, cover design (although I paid for my own cover design privately) an ISBN and distribution through Gardners (the UK’s largest book distributor) thereby ensuring your book is available to order through any UK bookstore and on Amazon.

I love the subject matter of Dear Dylan, however online networking and young people can be a very emotive subject. What led you to focus on an email correspondence between a teenager and a much older adult stranger in the book?

As the mother of a teenage son I am all too aware of the dangers the internet can pose to young people. However, I also feel very strongly that we can over protect our kids and that the internet can actually be an extremely positive forum for them. One of my favourite books of all time is Goodnight Mister Tom which focuses on the friendship between a young evacuee and a much older man. As a writer I wanted to explore a similar relationship as it develops and show how both parties benefit. I think teens can get a really bad press and I wanted to redress the balance by showing how the energy and enthusiasm they possess can have a really positive effect on older people. There is also a certain irony in the book in that the only real danger to Georgie actually comes from her home life and not in the friendship that she forms online. I didn’t set out to make this point deliberately, but with hindsight I’m kind of glad that Dear Dylan does make it. Despite all of the negative press the internet can get, the fact remains that most kids are far more at risk of being damaged in some way by their families and home lives than so-called ‘stranger danger’.

How difficult was it to write Dear Dylan in a way that engages rather than preaches to the audience, and how successful do you think you've been?

Maybe that’s a question for the readers! But as a writer I loved the freedom the email format gave me. Once I had the characters fully fleshed out in my head it was really enjoyable to write. Emails are often written in a relaxed, almost stream of consciousness style and I loved the way that enabled me to get into the flow of the character’s voices, particularly as they start to open up to one another. I was very aware that I didn’t want the older character to come across as preachy or completely sorted, as I think it would have been quite patronising to younger readers. The main objective for me was that both characters really learn and benefit from each other. And certainly from the initial feedback I’ve been getting from readers this seems to have come across.

I love the cover. How important do you think covers are for self-published authors, and could you tell me about the process of producing yours?

Thank-you, I can’t tell you how relieved it makes me to get positive feedback regarding the cover! I think getting the cover right is an absolutely essential part of the process, whether you are self-publishing or not. I received some awful feedback from readers and bookstores regarding the cover of my second novel with Hodder and it was absolutely soul-destroying. People say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ but of course we all do. When it comes to self-publishing writers are already at a disadvantage as there is still a lot of snobbery in the book world, especially in the UK. I think it is therefore vital that, if you want your book to be taken seriously, you put maximum effort into the presentation. I did a lot of research into book covers prior to Dear Dylan and I paid a professional book designer called Michael Hill to do the artwork. I wanted something striking that would appeal to both teenagers and adults and that summed up the themes and mood of the book. I was extremely happy with the end result and another really great thing about self-publishing is that you have complete creative control over the cover. It was a fantastic experience working with Michael on his ideas.

I gather you're planning to give this book away in eformat. Could you tell me how you're going about ensuring as wide a distribution as possible, and what you're personally doing in the way of promotion?

I’m giving the book away as an electronic download via my website http://www.siobhancurham.co.uk/ and I am planning to do the bulk of my marketing online; I have set up a Facebook group called Dear Dylan and I will be publicising the book on blogs, forums, websites etc. I will also be doing Dear Dylan workshops in schools and I have entered the book into a competition. The book ‘1001 Ways to Market your Books’ by John Kremer is also proving really useful when it comes to publicity ideas!

What next?

I am about to start work on my next novel for young adults called Finding Cherokee Brown as well as working flat out on publicity for Dear Dylan.


  1. I am intrigued that she turned down a major publishing deal and after reading her responses, now I understand why.

    AuthorHouse sounds awesome, maybe I shall try them once my novel is revised and done.

  2. Hey, Sabina. I'll be seeing Siobhan in a couple of weeks at the Literature Lounge event - I'll have a chat if you have any specific questions

  3. Really informative, fascinating, inspiring and food for thought.

  4. What a great interview! Inspirational for someone like me, who's happily avoiding the trad. route. Thanks, Dan and Siobhan.

  5. This is a fantastic interview Dan! It's very educating in terms of what really happens in the publishing market!

    We've all read that big houses frequently lack attention to most writers, especially on the marketing aspect, and they can trample an author financially. Siobhan's experience is enlightening as it allows us to visualize how it actually happens.

    It also bothers me how it's more and more common sense that agents are a fundamental part of the publishing process. If writers must develop into entrepreneurs to help the marketing blablabla, why can't they be wholly respected as said entrepreneurs and negotiate their contracts in fair basis?

    I'm not against the figure of literary agents, quite the contrary. They know the market and have much better possibility of feeling the trends of what is going to sell in the near future and what is not, which would be much harder for a new writer to do. Besides, we writers are biased by our creations, heh.

    What bugs me the most is this standard practice:

    A friend of mine who works at United Agents said that publishers will always try and take advantage of authors acting on their own; it was standard practise.


  6. Mari, I wonder, as more and more writers go unagented (and it becomes more acceptable, with more small publishers taking unrepresented writerson, surely opening the door at larger houses), whether this will continue to be standard practice, or whether writers will cluster together and share their experiences so that bad practice is more easily flushed out?

  7. @alison - thank you - Siobhan is an inspiration

    @Shayne - I would love to do an interview with you about your ventures in the ebook world, because you are one of the real success stories out there

  8. @Dan: I'd be honoured (and just a little nervous :-))