Sunday, September 22, 2013

Virtual Coffee Interview with Helen Hart

Helen Hart is a publisher, author, teacher, indie book reviewer and founding partner of SilverWood Books a publishing consultancy which offers a range of services to help writers get their work into print. Before securing a publishing deal for my book The I.T. Girl, I used SilverWood's editing service, which helped get my manuscript in shape and was a great learning experience.

Hi Helen. I enjoyed working with you and am delighted to have you here for a chat. Tell us about SilverWood Books, how it came about and what its goals are.

SilverWood Books was established in early 2007, at the forefront of the self-publishing revolution. As a professional author myself, I could see that many writers were being let down by so-called "vanity publishers" who charged a lot of money for sub-standard service and shoddy books. I thought there must be a better way of helping writers to publish their own work - and so SilverWood was born. Along with my friendly team, we now provide professional support to hundreds of writers, helping them to produce high quality books which can be confidently marketed in bookshops or online. Our sophisticated production values are recognised to such an extent that we're quickly becoming the choice of mainstream authors when they turn to self-publishing - BBC Radio 4 broadcaster and acclaimed biographer Sarah LeFanu recently chose to work with us on her back list plus a new title 'Dreaming of Rose', which was launched at Foyles bookstore, and USA Today bestseller Helen Hollick has recently produced her eighth historical novel with us. 

The key feature of a SilverWood book is that it matches the production values of books produced by traditional publishing houses such as Harper Collins and Random House - and this means our authors stand a better chance of persuading bookshops to stock their book, and of arranging author events and book signings (as you may know, often self-published and indie titles are refused due to their amateur nature).

We're reasonably selective about the work we take on, and offer our authors generous advice and support through the publishing process and beyond. Our aim is to work with a writer through their whole career rather than on a one-off book, and many authors return to work with us for a number of books, building their fanbase and developing their credibility as professional writers.

What would be grounds for rejecting a manuscript?

Before turning down a manuscript we'd first spend some time finding out the author's aims. 

If they just want to publish for family and friends then they can publish whatever they like and we'll help them make it the best it can be. We're not here to judge, but to help.

However, if a writer has commercial aims, and wants to sell books to general readers and compete in the open marketplace then I feel we have a duty to be honest. If their writing isn't ready for publication (or is simply unpublishable) then we want to help them avoid wasting money. Material that's clearly first draft, or badly written and poorly punctuated simply isn't going to sell. With over 38 million books in print, the marketplace is competitive and personally I don't want to see writers investing hard-earned cash in publishing something that's either not publishable, or needs further polishing to get it ready for publication.

We don't take turning down work lightly. As a writer myself I know how much heart and soul has gone into the writing! We always aim to be sensitive and constructive, offering to help a writer and work with them to improve their writing wherever possible. They can work with one of our editors or writing mentors, or we can recommend literary consultants, or writing groups, and good books on writing - that way the writer can learn their craft and then be successful when they eventually do publish.
As an author of 9 novels, what do you like to write about? Do you have something in the works at the moment?

When it comes to my own writing, my most successful novels have been YA (Young Adult) and I tend to write historical fiction about adventurous girls who step outside the boundaries of society as they know it - pirates, vampire-hunters and samurai princesses being my favourites, all written under a variety of pseudonyms! At the moment I don't have anything in the works as I'm focussing on mentoring SilverWood authors - which is surprisingly much more fun and satisfying than writing my own material!

You must have worked with a cross-section of writers, who come to you with their manuscript. Have you witnessed any alternative marketing approaches you'd like to share?

We do work with a wide cross-section of authors, and each brings their own unique skills and past experience to their book promotion. Our most successful authors are those who have written an outstanding book, and who are an authority in their field whatever that may be - especially if that expertise underpins their fiction. For instance one of our authors is a former British Army Intelligence officer who writes Cold War Thrillers and his background lends his work genuine credibility which shines through in the writing. He's also an example of someone with an alternative marketing approach because whenever he does bookstore signings or other author events, he brings along a unique prop - a 6-foot tall plastic mannequin dressed as a soldier, complete with gas mask and camouflage netting. That really attracts attention and is a fantastic talking point. People gravitate towards him (especially little boys and their dads) and that allows the author to talk about his books. Everyone is fascinated, and he sells a lot of books, which is great.

What a great idea! A lesson there for those of us (like myself) who feel a bit shy when it comes to marketing. Do you think self-publishing will become the default option for first-time authors or will traditional publishers evolve to stay in the game?

I think self-publishing is already fast-becoming the default option for first time authors - and for some who are (or were) traditionally published too. We work with many first time authors, but also a high number of successful authors who've decided to take control of their own work, self-publish, and connect directly with their readers.

I don't know what traditional publishers will do as the landscape shifts and develops, but I genuinely hope they do survive because there's a lot they do right - their expertise is unrivalled, and the support they can offer authors in terms of editing, distribution and marketing is hard for self-publishers to replicate. The future is uncertain, though. Research into so-called "digitally disrupted markets" applies the principles to publishing and indicates that maybe only 9 per cent of traditional publishers will recover from the huge changes in the industry. That's a scary thought...

Finally, what advice would you give to writers trying to turn their manuscript into a book?
  1. Take time to learn your craft as a writer - polish, edit and polish again. Don't rush to publish the first draft (or even the third or fourth!) because mistakes will undermine your credibility as a professional writer.
  2. Hire professionals to help you wherever possible - there are millions of books out there in competition with yours, so you genuinely can't afford for yours to have any flaws. Your book should be professionally proofread and typeset, and have a professional cover design (and if you're issuing an ebook edition alongside the paperback, have it expertly formatted by hand rather than run though auto-conversion software, which is a bit of a blunt instrument).
  3. Seriously consider a print edition, not just an ebook - print copies underline your credibility as a serious author, and also open up book promotion opportunities that are closed to ebook-only authors (and many reviewers will only accept print editions).
  4. Choose the right printing method for your book - in most cases POD (print On Demand) has an advantage over more traditional methods, especially if it comes with built-in global distribution.
  5. Find out about commercial aspects of publishing - the books marketplace, trade discounts, and how distribution works.
  6. Develop a book promotion strategy and an author platform before your book is published - that way you hit the ground running on launch day and have eager readers ready and waiting to buy.
  7. Have a pro-active and positive attitude - publishing your own work can be a lonely road unless you're working with a company like SilverWood, so you'll need stamina and self-belief.
  8. If you decide to work with a company to publish your book, do plenty of research because not everyone is professional, honest and reliable. We'd love you to check us out, and if we feel we can't help you then we'll refer you on to someone who can.
  9. Always ask to see a copy of a company's publishing agreement so you know what you're signing up to.
  10. Make sure you keep all rights to your own work.
  11. Consider writing more than one book - books cross-promote each other, and if your readers like your book then they'll be hungry for more (give them what they want).
Read more interviews...

Great advice, thank you, Helen. It's great to know that there are publishing houses like yours out there. Thanks again for taking the time for the interview.


  1. Interesting interview thanks for sharing your thoughts and advice.

  2. Thank you for having me here, Fiona. I really enjoyed the interview. The coffee was good too ;-)

  3. Hi Fiona and Helen. First of all, thank you for including SilverWood Books and Helen in your latest Post. My Cold War trilogy is proving to be very successful, having been in Amazon US, UK, Germany and Canada War Fiction Top 10. But, that is in no small part due to the professional support I have received from Helen and her team in respect to editing, layout, cover design and the overall presentation of the product. I have complete confidence in presenting my novels to any distributor or Book shop. 'The Blue Effect', out next year, will be placed in the capable hands of SilverWood Books for its final polish before I allow it to be published. HB