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Would Fifty Shades Have Seen the Light of Day if E.L. James Had Been Forced to Find a Print Publisher First?

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WHEN I sat down to write my memoirs last year, friends in the know told me I'd have no trouble landing a reputable publisher.

After all, I'd spent 36 years working for Blue Peter, one of the world's best-known children's TV shows with a rock solid fan base to boot.

I'd been lucky enough to work with everyone from John Noakes to Helen Skelton, some 30 or so presenters in total, and most if not all were happy to contribute their own anecdotes.

My picture collection features unseen shots of said presenters on assignment all over the world, and once I started thinking about it, happily the memories came thick and fast.

I don't want to sound over-entitled, any book must sink or swim on its own merits.

But given a previous Blue Peter book had sold 30,000-plus copies tied in with the show's 50th anniversary, it would have been a no-brainer for a major publisher to get on board.

Despite all this, I had reservations and when my book, Blue Peter: Behind the Badge, came out in early November after more than a year's work, it was in the show's best traditions of 'here's one I made earlier' - entirely self-financed and published.

Self-publishing - or vanity publishing as it was once, sneeringly, known - has undergone a quiet revolution in recent years. Apart from anything else, our rapidly growing band is now known by the far less boorish sobriquet of 'Indie Authors'.

Journalist friends now tell me many of the year's most interesting books are either self-published or come via very small publishers rather than the behemoths.

Publishers' Bible The Bookseller has written that 'at a time when traditional book sales are falling and bookshops are closing, self-publishing offers a valuable opportunity to promote wider engagement with reading and writing'.
Three of the shortlisted Booker Prize novels, Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists Myrmidon Books of Newcastle upon Tyne), Deborah Levy's Swimming Home (And Other Stories, of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire) and Alison Moore's The Lighthouse (Salt, based in Cromer, Norfolk), came via small firms.

The rise of the ebook is crucial to the emerging success of Indie Authors. By cutting out the middlemen - agents, publishers, traditional bookshops - authors can realise better returns and connect more directly with their readers.

Most notable, of course, is the phenomenon of E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey - now the best-selling book in British history.

Having now sold in excess of 5.3m copies in print and digital form - more than The Highway Code - it started life as self-published fiction.

Had E.L. James been forced to pitch her book via the traditional route to agents or publishers, I suspect the world would not yet have woken up to the joys of Anastasia 'holy cow' Steele and her erotic exploits. Instead, she has probably done more to popularise the phenomenon than anyone.

Obviously, I'm proud of my book. My son Henry helped design it and we had it professionally proofread, typeset and printed, as it turns out by a firm that actually prints many major titles for mainstream publishers.

So what is the difference?
Well, the financial risk for starters. Publishing my own book has cost me north of £30,000. As well as production costs, there have been lawyers' fees to check the text, and Publishers Indemnity Insurance - not to mention the costs of photographic copyright, website design and publicity.
All of which made it an expensive as well as a creative challenge. No mean feat for an ex BBC employee who runs a small Devon-based B&B with his wife. Publishing Behind the Badge exclusively as an ebook would have lopped at least £20,000 from the costs, but wasn't an option for a generous-sized tome filled with hundreds of exclusive pictures.
But I was able to write the book I wanted, without interference or meddling. It's given me a retirement project and the most pleasant excuse to reminisce with literally dozens of former colleagues about happy days working for the world's longest-running children's TV show.
Business has been measured rather than brisk, despite swathes of publicity, but I always knew it would be a slow burn and I'm happy to have made inroads in a competitive market.
There's now talk that the paperback edition might be picked up by a mainstream publisher; not bad business for them, given it is effectively written and designed already and their risk is therefore mitigated.
I wouldn't mind that either. My independence helped me create the book I wanted, of which I'm modestly proud and friends, family, and the occasional reviews has been kind, and a deal would help get it to the wider audience.
One lesson I have learned is that selling via the internet - via my own website and amazon - is not enough. Readers like to get their hands on a book like mine to see what they are buying, so I've been organizing signings.
When John Noakes famously climbed Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square to clean away the pigeon droppings, I was watching nervously from the ground directing the shoot.
This time round, as I undertook my own challenge, John has been the onlooker, and generous with his own memories. Self-publishing wasn't quite the same as scaling a 140 feet ladder, but it was challenging enough.

www.bluepeterbook.co.uk