Dispatches from the frontline of the ebook revolution

Anya Lipska, Novelist

This is the first in a series of blogs which The Literary Platform will be posting by writer Anya Lipska. We wanted to chart her experiences of the digital publishing process. Over the coming months we’ll be looking at her progress – step by step – in publishing her first book – both as a published author (Random House Germany) and as a direct to digital author…

16 September 2011

“It’s seven months since my agent called me with the news every writer fantasises about: a publisher had just bought the rights to my first book, ‘Where the Devil Can’t Go’ a detective thriller set among London’s Polish community, on an overnight exclusive. The buyer was German publisher Goldmanns, part of Random House, and the home of longstanding heroes of mine like Ian Rankin, Hakkan Nesser and Sara Paretsky, so I dared to hope that the UK rights would be snapped up by teatime…

Alas, despite a pacy storyline involving murdered girls and dark deeds from Poland’s Soviet past, the subject matter was considered ‘too fringe’ for mainstream commercial crime shelves here.

Three or four years ago, that would have ended my hopes of ever seeing an English language version of my novel. Not any more. The ebook has exploded onto the UK scene this year, outselling physical books on Amazon for the first time, and offering me an alternative route to repay two years of slog and my characters the chance to reach the page.

Over the last three months I’ve started out on a learning curve as steep as a ski run as I try to learn the business of publishing from scratch, while still earning a living as a freelance TV producer.

The first, critical task was to create a killer front cover that would grab potential readers and tell them what to expect inside – a noirish detective thriller with a European flavour. I cruised bookshop crime shelves, furtively snapping the covers on my mobile (apologies to the staff at Daunt in Cheapside: I was that mad woman) to pin down the elusive quality that catches my eye as a crime reader. Many of the mainstream covers struck me as a bit schlocky and predictable: after studying half a dozen dilapidated stairwells and derelict cellars I felt like one of the Polish builders from my yarn.

Deciding to go for an evocative landscape twinned with imaginative typography, like the best Fred Vargas covers, I started to cruise the stock image sites, many of which are very affordable – £29 buys five images at Shutterstock, for instance. But once I saw the images on offer at some of the more specialist sites, the budget went a bit out the window. I ‘focus grouped’ a variety of shots among my crime-reading friends, ending up with a near-consensus around a startling black and white image of barbed wire against an angry sky. Luckily, my designer, Michele Allardyce, was game for designing a variety of looks, because when I ran the choices past my agent and German publisher, they both said the barbed wire would be great – if my book were set in the Second World War…

The winning image – a cobbled European street snaking suggestively into the shadows – hadn’t been one of my favourites, but once Michele had done her magic with fonts and effects I realised it was spot on: subtly disturbing without entering slasher territory. The design work and image rights for the UK and ebook came to a very reasonable £400, but going to and fro with different permutations of images, typefaces and effects did burn up a lot of time: time I should really have spent working up my next book.

Yesterday, I received my first proof copy of the ‘physical’ book – I’m having a few printed to use as review copies and website giveaways – and the thrill of holding this thing that I created made it worth all the angst and graft. I think the spot red on the ‘Devil’ of the title and the overall ‘scratchy’ effect really works and I’m glad we ditched the shiny finish in favour of matte.

In fact, the upside of doing everything myself is that every aspect of the book – from the font I’m using for the text to the look of the website – is under my control. I might envy the big name crime writers their monster advances – but I suspect I have a good deal more say over the publishing process than they do.

Next week I’m off on holiday to Portugal and have promised to leave the laptop behind. On my return, I face some of my biggest challenges yet: getting some reviews for my blurb on Amazon, creating a standout website; and finding a brilliant (yet laughably cheap) publicist who understands the online world, and can get my ebook noticed above the clamouring throng. It will also be time to tot up all the invoices and see what my one-woman publishing venture is going to cost me…”

Anya Lipska