Jackie Burke explains why she turned down a traditional publisher and decided to self-publish her debut novel instead
What led you to write your first novel The Secrets of Grindlewood?
I’ve always loved reading and writing and used to “dabble” in writing short stories and poems from an early age. Most of my stories were about animals and magic, which were also the kind of stories I liked to read. When I started writing Grindlewood, it began with a small idea about a dog, a cat, a rabbit and a fox. Once I started to write, I realized I had a huge story in my head that simply had to come out! My first draft was enormous. It became the basis for the first two books, with piles of notes and ideas for the rest of the series.
Did you find it difficult to find the time to write? How did you balance it with other demands such as your day job?
I was lucky in a way that I was at home, having taken voluntary redundancy from my previous job, so I had the time. Perhaps that’s why the story popped into my head – I had the time to think, as well as write. Strangely, though, there hadn’t been any definite plan to become an author and publish books, it just happened once I put pen to paper (and eventually on to the computer), and I knew I had a story to tell.
Did you submit your novel to publishers and what type of responses did you receive?
Having researched online to find out who was accepting work from new authors, I submitted my first novel to about eight publishers. Some of them came back within three to six months saying they liked my work and would like to see more, others took longer, but they all “weren’t taking on any new authors at the time”. Then, I spotted one Irish publisher who was accepting submissions. I heard back within two days that they were very interested, and wanted to meet me the next day. I was stunned!
In the end you decided to self-publish – could you explain the factors that led you down this route?
After receiving the contract from the publisher, I decided to get independent advice. Some of the contract terminology was a little difficult for me to understand and I thought it was sensible to ask an expert. My adviser said it was a normal contract for a first-time author, but there were a few points that should be clarified. In the end the publisher and I did not agree on all points, so I went back to my research on self-publishing and took it from there.
I could have approached other publishers at this stage, and there definitely are pros and cons to self-publishing, but mostly I just wanted to get on with publishing the book, continue writing the rest of the series, and see how it would go.
You worked with a number of people in order to get your book ready for publication. Could you tell us a little bit about your team, and the stages you went through to get your novel into stores?
Check out www.writing.ie – it’s a fantastic website for anyone interested in writing. There I found Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin and we met for a chat. Vanessa introduced me to Chenile Keogh, the Production Director of Kazoo Independent Publishing, who I subsequently asked to produce my book. Chenile put me in touch with Robert Doran, who is now my editor. I found my illustrator, Fintan Taite, online as well, and as he lives in Dublin and I live in Bray, it was easy to meet up and discuss the illustrations I needed.
Getting books into book stores is not nearly as easy as it sounds. You could approach book stores directly, but it makes more sense to approach the distributors and wholesalers, as they distribute to book stores around the country. Be prepared for some tough negotiation, as they will expect your book to be produced as well as any traditionally published book, before they will even consider it. They will also want to know how you will be marketing your work. This is why it is so important not only to have a good story, but also an attractive, well made product that people will want to buy, as well as a complete marketing plan to promote it long-term.
Self-published (and traditionally published!) books sometimes disappear quickly without trace, but the Grindlewood series is selling well and attracting lots of young fans. What factors do you think have helped your books to stand out from the crowd and gain an audience?
First of all, thank you for the compliment! The books are doing well, but as always, it’s down to a combination of things. Of course, I love my story, but it seems to have struck a chord with children as well as adults – which is great. Grindlewood is essentially a fairytale of good versus evil, with lots of magic, animals, children and adventure. I try to mix the magical aspects of the story with a little bit of real life, so that the tale can really come to life in readers’ imaginations. Having a really good editor and illustrator definitely helps to.
Do you do many school visits and other promotional events, and how important do you think these types of activities are for a children’s writer?
My books are written for children aged 8 to 12, so I do a lot of primary school visits and workshops during the school year. I really enjoy the interaction with the children, and it is a really good way of introducing them to your work, as well as encouraging reading and creative writing in a general sense. I am often invited to talk in libraries and bookshops around the country as well, and I try to attend a variety of talks and writers’ conferences, when time allows.
Do you think the financial returns might enable you to quit the day job at some point, or do you already write full-time?
I’m already writing full-time, but as any author will tell you, the financial returns can be slow to materialise. If you are self-publishing, you have to invest in producing your books before you earn anything for yourself. The author is always paid last! When my first book was published, I had no idea how things would turn out. Now, with my fourth book on the way, my sales and readership are continuing to grow, allowing me to keep following my dream.
What advice would you have for other writers considering self-publishing a book?
I’ll try to keep this short!
- Write the book you want to write, not what anyone else thinks you should write.
- Be realistic about your writing. Make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be before you send it to anyone.
- Be aware of the costs of self-publishing and the amount of other work you will have to do as an author. Are you set up for that?
- Do your research. Learn about the book industry and how it works.
- Write because you love writing and have a story to tell.
- Don’t give up. There’s a lot to learn on this journey, but it’s worth it if you love to write and want to share your stories with everyone.