One of the questions for Creative Writing students is how best to publish their work. Novels, short fiction, and poetry collections are written to be read and enjoyed by as many people as possible, so how best to go about it?
I hope the authors and former Swansea University PhD students below; will provide you with inspiration and advice from their unique journeys on the path to publication.
Dr Carole Hailey, whose recent novel The Silence Project, will be published as a lead debut by Atlantic books at the start of 2023.
Dr Matthew G. Rees, author of Keyhole, who was published by Three Impostors in 2019, and self-published his most recent short fiction collection The Snow Leopard of Moscow & Other Stories via Amazon KDP in 2022.
Dr Emily Vanderploeg’s poetry collection Strange Animals that was published by Parthian Books in April this year.
Carole Hailey, whose novel The Book of Jem comprised her PhD, was co-published in 2020 through Watermark Press, a small publishing company built with her PhD supervisor, author, and Swansea University lecturer Dr Alan Bilton, and the help of writer Dr Jane Fraser and photographer Philip Griffiths via their company NB:Design. ‘[What we did] is self-publishing, but we have an actual company and we made sure that we had the design work done to a really high standard. We did the same as every other publishing company, but we were just publishing our own books,’ Carole explained. However, being traditionally published was still something she wanted to achieve.
She began this journey by submitting the first 5,000 words of her novel to the Bath Novel Award, the Blue Pencil Agency (BPA) First Novel Award, and the Bridport First Novel Award. While she was not nominated for the first two awards, Carole succeeded in being shortlisted for the Bridport First Novel Award.
Then someone from the Blue Pencil Agency took an interest in her work and reached out to her. ‘I thought it was a joke, to begin with, and she was like I know that you didn’t even get longlisted, but how would you feel about me passing your competition submission on to an agent? Obviously, I said yes!’
After finishing her novel, Carole forwarded the full manuscript to the agent who liked it and signed her. Carole’s new agent, Marina de Pass from The Soho Agency, gave her a lot of feedback to work with. ‘It took me three months full-time to make all the changes,’ she said. ‘Which was completely fine, … in fact I really enjoyed doing it … She sent it out on submission, and I got offers from two publishers and I went with the one that’s publishing it, which is Atlantic.’
The journey of any author is varied and long. Carole sees the pros and cons of self-publishing as a platform and necessary step. ‘With self-publishing, obviously you have absolute control over everything … you keep all the money that you make [but] you have to be prepared to do everything: the marketing, the accounts, everything to do with both running a business and also selling a product.’
Dr Matthew G. Rees published his first short fiction collection Keyhole with Three Impostors in 2019. His thoughts on ‘traditional’ vs. self-publishing are multi-layered. Having published his first short fiction collection with Three Impostors, an independent press based in Newport, Wales, he explained how in his opinion ‘a small ‘boutique’ or ‘kitchen table’ publisher can sometimes go the extra mile because of the way in which the book you have with them is their ‘front-and-centre’ project.’ The effort his publishers went through to place Keyhole with Foyles Bookshop at Charing Cross Road in London was remarkable.
‘Coincidence/ good fortune’ were responsible for Three Impostors to take an interest in Matthew’s writing. They included his short story ‘The Word’ in The Wentwood Tales, a series published by Three Impostors, and in 2019 they also published his short story collection Keyhole.
Matthew’s most recent work, The Snow Leopard of Moscow & Other Stories (2022), appeared via Amazon KDP, as he wanted it published in a timely manner. He cherishes the control he has when self-publishing and stated how ‘[T]he final edit is the writer’s, likewise the choice of cover and price’. Matthew acknowledges the extra work authors need to put in. For example, signing copies for his local independent bookshop, which he says ‘… is perhaps proof, in a small way, that it’s possible to combine the macro and the micro.’ While The Snow Leopard of Moscow & Other Stories (2022) is available worldwide through Amazon KDP, local readers can benefit from buying his signed work in person.
To advertise his work Matthew set up his own website and to further his profile online employs social media. He says ‘… it can sometimes seem as if everyone on Facebook or Twitter is an author pushing a book.’ He makes use of book reviews, interviews, and writes stage plays and audio fiction, and says that taking part in events can also be crucial for authors. One particularly memorable launch was the day ‘Keyhole was launched at the family home of Dylan Thomas in Swansea – reading from it in the front parlour was a privilege that still causes me to blink with disbelief.’
His advice for an emerging writer is: ‘For the sake of literature, write something different that goes against the grain – and tell the world (politely) that it can please itself. For the sake of your wallet, pay attention to whatever’s in fashion (or likely to be) and network, network, network.’
Dr Emily Vanderploeg finished her PhD at Swansea University in 2012. Her poetry collection Strange Animals was published in April 2022 by Parthian Books. For her PhD, she had written a novel of interlinked short stories. ‘I must say my journey was not easy … a lesson in tenacity perhaps. I did my PhD in fiction, I started with short stories and as I was writing them I found that they were interlinked, so it ended up being a hybrid novel, a novel made of short stories. I must say, when I was doing my PhD, I thought oh, I’ll write a book, and then when I finish it will get published and I’ll become a professor, and everything will fall into place very easily. But that didn’t happen.’
Emily submitted her novel of short stories to agents and publishers, but at the time none of them were interested in publishing her work. While she can look back now and appreciate the learning process and the fact that her novel needed major editing, back then Emily decided against it. Instead, she re-discovered poetry, having studied it during her MA at Swansea University, she remembers lessons by her teacher Nigel Jenkins with appreciation and fondness.
Emily’s participation in the ‘Writers at Work’ project at Hay Festival Wales was a significant turning point in her writing for publication. Each year the festival hosts an 11-day residential in which selected writers attend events and talk to other authors. ‘Agents spoke to us as well as editors, and I feel like that was a big confidence boost. I can put together a selection of poetry, I can write my novel.’
Emily assembled a collection of poems called Loose Jewels, and it won the Cinnamon Press Poetry Pamphlet Award, resulting in publication in 2020. While her poetry collection had been previously rejected by Parthian, Emily reached out again with a reworked collection in 2020 and was accepted. She says how this made her realise that ‘a rejection doesn’t always mean no forever, as long as you can keep working on it.’
During the Covid lockdown, Emily drafted the novel that has been following her around since she finished her PhD thesis. She completed it at the end of last year and is hopeful that it will be accepted for publication sometime this year. Self-publishing is not something she would consider for herself. ‘Self-publishing seems to work well for things like science fiction or romance, those can also be published by traditional publishers, but they seem to find an audience with self-publishing. But I think if you are trying to write literary fiction, it’s harder to sell it on your own.’
Her advice for emerging writers is to ‘test your work first with submitting to magazines and sharing it with friends that you trust, writer friends typically.’ Mutual exchange can help to explore what works well and what people will like, because ‘if you want people to read it, you can’t be afraid of showing it to people before it’s being published.’
It was interesting to note the variance in Carole’s, Matthew’s, and Emily’s publishing journeys and to hear such differences in opinion towards self-publishing.
As the publishing world grows smaller with many cities boasting only one book shop, and novels selected by supermarkets are partially financed by their publisher, Amazon, and Waterstones hold an ever-strengthening grip on what is considered for commercial, or literary publication.
For me it seems crucial to consider what you want to achieve with your writing, to consider where it is you see your niche. I take away the advice to consider my options, my particular skill set, and I’ll keep submitting and revising until I succeed. To every emerging writer reading