Talented, tenacious and brave enough to bid farewell to the battered establishment we now refer to as "traditional publishing," Polly Courtney is a new breed of writer. Unhappy with the way her three-book deal with HarperCollins imprint Avon UK transpired, Courtney returned to self-publishing with her latest novel, Feral Youth. After all, bucking convention is how she got what she initially perceived as her "golden ticket."
Her self-published 2006 debut, Golden Handcuffs, is a fictional exposé of the London financial world where she once made her living—and honed her business acumen. A slick comedy of manners that follows a group of "hair-swishing 20-somethings" and "slick city bankers" as they work long hours, make small fortunes and drink a lot, the book earned enough attention for her to sign a contract with one of the last of the big publishers.
After self-publishing a second book, Poles Apart, in 2008, she delivered her first manuscript to Avon UK, The Day I Died. Although Courtney says it was well-received by the publisher, she admits making mistakes from the start.
Avon UK "really wasn't right for my writing," which is something, she says, "I should have realized when I had the early conversations with the editorial team." They wanted books that were "women-centric, light, soft, free, fluffy—all those things. And I wanted to be able to cover tough issues like homelessness."
Courtney knew she "didn't quite fit in that box," yet she clung to the hope that the old business model was still the best one because, she admits, "it was the closest box I could find."
She felt convinced she had made the wrong decision when they presented the cover design of The Day I Died to her. She recalls thinking, "Oh my, that's not right!" While it "wasn't the most offensive cover," she says, "it was very, very unrepresentative of what was inside. So, we were compromising from the start."
As one who has navigated her way through international finance and self-published two well-received books, Courtney doesn't compromise as easily as some other writers may—much to the chagrin of her new publisher. On her own, she recruited "a whole load of target-reader types—women readers, mostly—" showed them the cover and asked, "What do you think this book is about?"
She received about 30 responses, "all very wrong," she explains. Based on the book's cover and packaging, the women she polled asked her, "Oh, is it a story like The Lovely Bones?" (It's not.)
"I felt they were confusing the readership," she continues. "I said to the publisher, ‘Look. People think it's this when it's that.' They basically said, ‘Well, thanks very much, but we're going to ignore you and carry on.' "
When the same thing happened with their second book together, The Fame Factor, Courtney began to prepare an exit strategy. She was "desperately done with being rammed into a mold," and the brand she was trying to build up was becoming "a real mess," she says. After her third book with Avon UK, It's a Man's World, in 2011, Courtney had had enough. "I didn't need to prove a point to any individuals, and I really didn't want it to feel like it was a personal thing, walking out on a publisher," she says. "Everyone involved was just doing their job, really."
"Although it seemed like a really big fit I was throwing at the time," the author says of her well-publicized decision to walk away, "it was the result of three years of frustration." It was also a conscious business decision to save her "brand" as a writer, she explains from a studio in London, where she is helping to arrange the recording for the audio book of her new self-published book, Feral Youth. The audio book features the voice of the young actress who appears as her 15-year-old narrator, Alesha, in a video the author also produced to promote the book.
The problem, she says, is "risk aversion in the industry." She laments the "genre-izing of books" and publishers' fear of taking risks. "I think the system is wrong, and the industry is flawed, and their model has kind of been broken," she concludes.
And she's not alone. "When I did make a bit of a fuss and got some press over it, a lot of authors contacted me, saying, ‘You know what? This exact thing happened to me, and I'm glad you're exposing it.' It definitely seems to be an issue."
Her answer? Do it yourself. Which isn't to say one need be a control freak. "I'm definitely up for collaborating," Courtney says. "It wasn't as though I wanted to do everything myself" —or could. It's due to the fact that Courtney knows the importance of collaboration that she succeeds in self-publishing.
It's become a trope to say a successful independent author needs to have a business sense on par with his or her ability to craft solid novels. "I know I've got an entrepreneurial streak in me," Courtney confirms. "I'm willing to takes risks."
In fact, because she took the risk, she enjoyed writing her latest book more than any other. She no longer felt as if she were writing for hire. Self-publishing, she says, "gave me the liberty of doing what I wanted right from the start. I was in control again."
For her latest venture, Courtney tracked down Sinem Erkas, a cover designer whose work she admired. "I could tell in an instant she got what I was all about," says Courtney. "Working together was a really nice process."
She hired an expert editor but also crowd-sourced "12 or 14" friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter to read and give notes on the initial drafts of her manuscript. She recruited a talented film student to direct the book's trailer and, through a chance encounter at a book fair, set up a 50/50 deal for an audio version she never even conceived of. Plans for a film are very much in her sights.
She notes how far self-publishing has come since her first foray seven years ago. "It's as though it's easier to do some things but harder to get noticed," she observes. "The barriers are lower, but because the barriers are lower, the floodgates are open and everyone's doing it." Promoting a book, she says, has become even more important since readers have become "more fragmented; it's harder to make that big hit."
The process still requires diligence and teamwork—the very things she found lacking at her old publisher. "The problem with self-publishing is that it's very easy to do badly. Too many authors miss important steps like editing, cover design and promotion, which gives self-publishing a bad name."
Tom Eubanks, a freelance writer, editor and consultant, has worked in magazine and book publishing for 25 years. He lives in New York City.