At some point in December 2011, and I don’t remember the exact date, other than it was before the schools broke up for Christmas in the UK, I indie-published my first fantasy book, then called Purple, and now renamed to Hidden Dragon. I’d spent years writing it (over three, but the idea had been with me for fifteen.) I’d sent it to just about every UK based agent that would consider fantasy, and I’d got precisely nowhere. Unsure what more I could do, I was convinced to put it on Amazon Kindle just to see what would happen.
I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. (Some might argue I still don’t). But, that means that in December 2021, I’ll celebrate ten years as an indie author. And what a ride it’s been. There have been a few dizzying highs and primarily many, many lows. I would like to think that I finally know what I’m doing, but every so often, such as recently with IngramSpark, something happens that I realise I don’t know. Anyway, I think this anniversary allows me to reflect on the last ten years.
Firstly, I would say that indie publishing is just about unrecognisable to when I started. Yes, Amazon Kindle hasn’t changed in any way – it still offers writers an affordable means to publish, but the way books are ‘built’ and put on the service is very different, in a good way. The options are far more sophisticated, and indeed, I think every platform has undoubtedly changed for the better in the last ten years. I can only speak mostly about Amazon Kindle because while I’ve flirted with other platforms, I’ve only used Amazon Kindle for much of the last few years.
The way indie-writers approach their writing is entirely different. The options available in terms of editors, cover designers, advertising, printing paperbacks, accessing multiple market places has also changed over time. I genuinely pity anyone starting today because it is a minefield. It doesn’t have the quirkiness about it that it once did when anyone could try their luck, and success stories were built on it. Writers have higher expectations of themselves. Readers have expectations that exceed those of authors with traditional publishing deals. And authors with traditional publishing deals increasingly look to indie-publishing if they have projects that are rejected by their usual route.
My journey has seen me pivot more than once. My desire to write fantasy that fans of ‘my sort’ of fantasy could enjoy (my influences were and remain, Anne McCaffrey, Katharine Kerr, Patricia Keneally Morrison, Melanie Rawn, Robin Hobb, Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin), but this isn’t where fantasy is these days. (All hail grimdark – apart from Robin Hobb). I took to historical fiction when I discovered a historical character that needed writing about – Ealdorman Leofwine – but even then, it wasn’t a smooth journey. Once more, I went down the route of trying to find an agent and failed. And once more, I went indie. I will share the story of how I placed Ealdorman, as the book was then called, for pre-order on Smashwords for three months and got precisely no pre-orders – even though I stayed up until midnight on release day to watch them all flood in. It would be another three months until someone picked up that book!
I still toyed with fantasy, but I was increasingly finding my ‘home’ in historical fiction – a genre I didn’t particularly enjoy reading apart from five authors – Elizabeth Chadwick, Sharon Penman and Bernard Cornwell’s Excalibur trilogy, as well as Stonehenge and some Egyptian historical mysteries by Paul Doherty. I wrote different periods (but still in Early England). I tried different writing styles. I just didn’t stop because the only way to succeed was to write something that would be successful.
I had a false start with The First Queen of England book, a novel I tried to write as a historical romance, but where the sequels pivoted towards the political (I mean, the poor woman’s husband died!) and which therefore landed me in trouble with my readers who didn’t want a romance, and with romance readers, who were unappreciative that the trilogy didn’t continue as a romance. But the success of the Lady Elfrida books did allow me to give up my part-time job to write full time.
I wrote some more fantasy. I wrote a modern-day/dystopian future mash-up under a different name and sold about ten copies. But all the time, readers were slowly coming. My pre-orders all made it beyond my zero for Ealdorman.
And then, one day, King Coelwulf came to me. He wasn’t very clear to start with, and he sat on the back burner for two years, and then, when I began to write him, he sort of exploded onto the computer screen. (I believe his character is so strong because of a character I’d written in one of my fantasy books, who isn’t Coelwulf but has some of his qualities, while the battle scenes have been built upon by my attempts to recreate the three famous battles of the seventh century and Brunanburh in the tenth). I also decided to ‘sod it’ and write a character the way I wanted to. That doesn’t mean that my other characters aren’t the men and women I want to portray, but I think there was some hesitancy in them and me. This time, I downplayed the history a little and upgraded the violence and the swearing. I brought the humour. I brought the peril, and I had a bloody good time doing it. And you know what, people loved it (or hated it), and Coelwulf connected me with an audience who had just been waiting for me to discover them.
I’ve written 46 novels and one short story (15K) throughout the last ten years, which I published (not all under M J Porter), and a shorter short story in Iron and Gold with fellow Aspects of History authors. I have four further novels which aren’t yet published, which I’m writing – Son of Mercia will be published by Boldwood Books in February 2022 and is complete, the second book in the Eagles of Mercia Chronicles will be published by Boldwood in June 2022, the third, later in 2022. This means that after ten years as an indie, I’m becoming a hybrid author.
I have four series I’m currently writing (three set in Early England and one in 1940s Erdington), so more books will come, and I have many more stories to share. Whether I make it another 46 books in the next ten years, I genuinely don’t know. I can’t see I’ll lose the desire to write. To do that, I’ll need to stop attending history and archaeology talks which offer me so many new stories to tell. I’ll also have to stop reading because often, my ideas come from what I read. And that just isn’t going to happen.
So, thank you to everyone of my readers who’s made the last ten years possible. You rock (well, most of you do – you know who you are:)) Let’s see what the next ten years bring.