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Surrealistic Planet

Meet the Independents: Phil Williams

Research suggests self-published authors represented up to 34% of eBook sales in 2020. The number of independently-minded authors who choose to do-it-themselves is increasing. This is despite the limited financial revenue. According to ALCs, seasoned self-published authors, (those who have been writing for at least 20 years), typically earn less than £10,500 annually. Notably, the top 10% of these authors account for 70% of the total revenue in the industry. So, if we’re not going to be the next Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, why do we do it?

As a writer, we are bound to ask ourselves the same question at some point: should I aim for the traditional publishing route of submissions and agents and publishing contracts - or should I self-publish? To inform that decision, I asked some well-established #indieauthors to tell me about their journey.


One of my reasons for choosing Phil Williams to feature in this series is because he represents a quality all #indieauthors need - but few enjoy or feel they can master. Phil is an entrepreneur. He recognises that #selfpublishing is, at its heart, a business. It involves being commercially minded. A lot of us shy away from those qualities. "We're in it for the art!" we scream. "I just want to get my stories out there!" we claim. Yet we also want an element of success. When we look at our sales figures we'd like them to be bigger. In addition to this reason, I knew Phil would be honest about his career. He'll tell you the good and the bad about making a career out of writing. Finally, he's a bloody great writer. For me, he's at the top of my list of urban fantasy authors. His entrepreneurial activities include designing book covers too - I recommend him highly because he designs mine!

1. Tell us who you are and how we might have read something by you.

I’m Phil Williams, author of contemporary fantasy thrillers and a few dystopian novels; you may know me from the Ordshaw series, which has hit the semi-finals of SPFBO a couple of times (with Under Ordshaw and Kept From Cages). I also write guides for learners of English.

2. Tell us about your journey as a self-published author. Where did you start? What lessons did you learn along the way? Have you reached your destination yet? Are you motoring along quite happily, trundling down a country lane or stuck in a lay-by?

I’ve been writing books forever, but my publishing career actually started while business networking. A local tech millionaire gave me the idea that if I was running a successful website (which I was) then I could monetise that through eBooks. I learnt about Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income route and began putting out little books about copywriting and then my ELT guides. This was very much a business proposition, stirring in the realms of content marketing, and it didn’t actually work for me, but it gave me all the grounding I needed to publish books that would later earn a good chunk of change.

In the background, I started to see that what I had learnt there could be used to publish my novels, and I tentatively got into that, without much thought for really connecting with communities and the business side of that. With that reticence, I didn’t make much headway in fiction until later. I did some stuff right, early on, like building a team of readers and getting good feedback, but what I mostly got wrong was positioning the books and marketing. I’ve tried to get better at that with each book, though it’s a perpetual problem that I have a habit of bending genres.

Anyway, I started to make a full-time income from my non-fiction books, but I’m still a long way off doing the same with my fiction. Between book sales and freelancing I always seem to have enough hustle going on that I can keep churning out random fiction projects, so I’m certainly happy with where I’m at, but still poking about for the angle that really sticks.

3. Have you experienced any part of the traditional route? Have you submitted to agents and publishers much? Emotionally, how have you reacted to these experiences?

I started submitting to agents and publishers when I was a teenager, and had this habit of writing a novel, sending it to a dozen people, then deciding it wasn’t good enough. I would then write another novel and repeat. I did this once a year for 6 or 8 years or so, I suppose.

This wasn’t a great approach because I never really got useful feedback and don’t think I improved as much as I could’ve in that time. The submissions process is pretty cold and no one has time to be offering feedback, so while I got the idea I needed to do something better, I never had much idea of exactly what.

Further down the line, when I’d done just about everything wrong that you can with submissions, I finally got some positive responses and full manuscript requests. But they still ultimately passed: one novel was a little too unusual, not sure how it would fit in the genre, and the next was too similar, not too sure how it would stand out.

At that point, I decided that while I wasn’t hitting the exacting requirements of a trad publisher, these books were worth selling. I lost patience and just put them out there.

I do continue to send stuff on submission, mostly because I’m prolific enough that there’s always something on the back burner, but it’s harder than ever to get noticed.

4. What was the defining moment when you said to yourself, “I’m going to self-publish!” What prompted it?

During my long-term submissions extravaganza, I finally had a professional editor look at one of my books, the post-apocalyptic Wixon’s Day. He said it’d probably be easier to write another novel than get Wixon’s Day published. At that point I figured I’d written quite enough new books and this was one was actually pretty good, thank you. I just wanted the book out there, so I got on and did it myself. I knew I could do it, because I was already doing it with business stuff, and that was that. Looking back, I appreciate the critiques that editor had for Wixon’s Day, but the decision has been validated by more than a few people saying they absolutely loved that book, even if it never found a big publishing house or a huge audience.

5. Writing is a lonely business. Self-publishing even more so. Does this isolation affect you? How about things like ‘Imposter Syndrome’? What gets you out of these bleaker moments? How do you cope with it? (Do you cope?) Do you have a support network that helps you?

Yeah, it’s tough getting on with things on your own, you really need peers and critiques to help keep you on the ball. A big help for me was getting involved in online communities, earlier through business-focused groups like Mark Dawson’s SPF, and later through meeting fellow authors via SPFBO (both SPFs, what’s that about?). That in turn led to me networking in person through conventions, which I started doing in 2019. These proved absolutely invaluable, I’ve met some wonderful authors and readers, and made some great connections doing this, though it sadly got put on a bit of a hiatus by the pandemic.

These connections help make sense of the craft and the business, stopping you from feeling adrift.

When it comes to self-doubt and imposter syndrome and whatnot, my main crutch is relying on a good editor. I’m pretty self-assured (for better or worse), but final validation, for me, comes from a solid round of editing. I had a great relationship with my discerning editor for the earlier Ordshaw books, Carrie O’Grady, to the degree that once we’d worked through a novel I had full confidence in what I was creating. She’s sadly retired from freelancing, but I’m working with an equally discerning new editor for the next book!

6. A self-published author has to be a jack-of-all-trades, don’t they? They likely employ an editor and cover designer but the other jobs are down to you. I’m talking stuff like marketing or IT. What lessons have been learned here? Which jobs do you hate? Enjoy?

I’ve always been pretty keen on IT and a quick study with tech, and I bring my natural curiosity and creativity into stuff like book design and production, so that was never a problem for me. Likewise, to a degree, I already had an interest in online marketing, so I was able to get into the theory of that without too much trouble. The problem for me, though, is that I’m not hugely commercially-focused, or even goal-oriented really, so when I have a solid idea for how I should be doing things to maximise profits, I don’t necessarily follow through. There’s various reasons for this, but the very bottom line of it is that I’m still not writing properly to market. Combine that with a bit of reticence for constant outreach (e.g. for reviews) and it can sometimes time feel like a slog to get books selling. But as you say, we’ve got to do it, and we soldier on…

7. Time, effort and commitment. Following on from that last question, you don’t have anyone to do the work for you. (Or do you??) How do you find time when Life isn’t getting in the way? How much time per week is involved, on average? How does it fit in with the day job? What level of commitment does it take – and how do you sustain it?

I do not have anyone working for me, no (I wish!). I find the time by making it my day job; I put writing and publishing first, even when it’s not drawing in the big bucks. I’m very lucky to be able to do that, because I’ve found ways to make my freelancing and ELT publishing provide an income without taking up all my time. As such, I try to allocate my mornings to fiction and afternoons to everything else that I need to do to stay alive. I try to keep things healthy by not working weekends and not working too late, disciplines learnt from freelancing, but I often do find myself starting early and still at the computer after dark.

It doesn’t feel like a commitment to me (at times it feels irresponsible instead), because writing is something I’ve always wanted to do and always see myself doing. And not just the story-telling side of it; the book creation, covers and publicity are all part of me wanting to complete a project. I’d always fit it in some way, it’s a compulsion…

8. A self-published author has to be enterprising, an entrepreneur. Does the commercial side of the role come naturally or are you rubbish at the business side of things? What are the struggles here?

I was a freelancer and helped run a tech start up before diving properly into self-publishing, so I thankfully had some background in entrepreneurism already. The challenge involved is really having the drive to see something through from a passionate concept to the market; it’s easy to start a project, and may even be easy to complete it, but it’s more difficult to keep plugging something for sales long after you’ve finished the creative work. But after I spent 3 years fundraising for a project that never quite took off, and likewise got to see the kind of work that goes into selling movie scripts with no guarantee of a film ever getting made, it got easier to stomach the necessity of consistently chasing book sales.

9. Self-published authors are independents. They retain control of their work. Tell us about one specific part of what you’ve created that reflects this independence. I’m talking about things a traditional route might not have allowed or advised against. It might be a book itself, its cover, a character, a setting etc.

My earlier books probably would’ve been done better if I hadn’t gone rogue on their cover designs! But ha, the whole Ordshaw series skews away from convention, straddling a few genres as it does. The one thing that best reflects independence for me, though (and the main element that convinced me to focus on novels over screenplays) is that I’ve been able to put out diverse content quickly and completely. I don’t have to wait on anyone else’s say so to create what I want, and I don’t have to wait on the publishing machine to process it. That’s given me the opportunity to see many books through to the end.

10. How important is your IP? Your intellectual property. You retain it, as an indie author. Is that important? If so why? Can you tell us about any plans you have to develop it?

IP is incredibly important to me. Ordshaw, for example, is something that I’ve always seen as a wider brand than a series of stories; it’s a shared universe with many different angles. I saw an opportunity to present a broader product with multiple entry points and the opportunity to expand into other media. It’s a pretty particular vision; it’s not apparent on the surface, yet, quite how complicated and interconnected the Ordshaw stories are. I’m not sure if such a project would’ve been possible within the limitations of producing these books as a collaboration, and can’t imagine how it would’ve felt giving up these rights to a publisher and being told, for instance, that they no longer wanted books in this universe.

These ambitions are a big undertaking, with a great time-risk. There’s no guarantee building such a brand will pay off, but when it comes to Ordshaw, that’s my passion project and I’m doing it the way I intended.

That said, as writers it’s always a business decision. There are other areas where I’d be willing to work on other IPs, and some projects I’d be happy to relax my control over in the interests of collaboration. It all starts with knowing what my vision is for each creative work, though, and considering how far I want to take it and in what particular form.

11. What is your greatest success? (In whatever context you choose to define).

Probably my marriage, I’m unbelievably lucky there. But I guess we’re here to talk about writing! In work, what means the most to me is seeing authors and reviewers I have tremendous respect for enjoying my books. My novels aren’t for everyone, so when occasionally I get a review from someone who totally gets what I was going for, it makes it all feel worthwhile. That means more to me than all the numbers attached, though I can’t deny I’m also rather proud of how well my combined books have sold.

12. Tell us about what you’re working on at the moment.

Book 7 in the Ordshaw series is out soon: Dyer Street Punk Witches is a standalone that’s a bit of a departure for the series; it’s part classic witch story, part crime thriller and part emotional rollercoaster concerning past regrets and the nature of lost potential. To my mind, it’s more heavily character-focused than the earlier books, but just as fun.

13. Will you always self-publish? If an agent or trad publisher came along and offered you a contract, would you take it? What goals do you have in mind for your future? Or do you take it a day at a time?

I would happily go into hybrid territory; I’ll always have more books than a publisher would take on, and an impatient streak, but I’d love to work with agents and publishers to expand my horizons. Goals-wise, my main aim is to sell enough books to keep writing, but at some point I’d like to get at least one project in the trad door, mostly for the opportunities it would offer for a more collaborative process.

My Takeaway

Phil provided links to business gurus in his interview and I strongly recommend you follow them up. Like it or not, as an #indieauthor you must enter the commercial market place - and understand it - if you are to succeed. Phil talked about understanding the market and I echo this need. Who is likely to buy your book? How do you find them? What approaches will work? Trust me, simply putting your book "out there" and hoping Facebook ads or the odd daliance with social media is going to work? No chance! Phil and I have bemoaned our choice of writing stories which straddle fantasy genres. Your book is a product, its packaging, its content needs to be easily understood by customers. After all, on average, they spend 10 seconds browsing places like Amazon! Know what you are selling - know who will likely be interested.

Second takeaway. An #indieauthor needs to be enterprising. This means going beyond writing your book. Find other avenues to promote yourself - and perhaps make money in the process. Phil saw his skills in IT as another route to market. I choose to review and blog about books and writing. The writing business is complex and diverse, there are lots of enterprising ways to promote yourself and your work. Develop them. The world of publishing is big and well populated market place. Getting found amidst the masses, screaming about the quality of their books, means finding ways to get noticed. Just like Phil has done!

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