Why I self-published my novels

That’s the first question indie authors have to answer, isn’t it? Most self-published authors have to ask themselves if they wish to seek a traditional publishing deal for their books (i.e. “trad pub”) if they want to take responsibility for everything and upload their manuscripts to distribution sites themselves (i.e. “self pub”).

I think my reasons for self-publishing are the same as many authors:

  • A lack of patience (it can take years to find a literary agent, then years to find a publisher willing to take your book, then another 12-18 months until that book appears on shelves)
  • An enjoyment of entrepreneurship (producing your own product, thinking through a business lens, learning new skills to serve your business such as cover design & marketing)
  • A tolerance of risk
  • An overwhelming urge for creative control.

I’ve enjoyed working on the Edinburgh Doctrines series knowing I’m setting the pace and deciding where to take the books (e.g. sub-genre, themes, plot beats).

Thanks to Publishing Paid Me and the Harper Collins strike, we know a lot about the inequities and challenges within traditional publishing: how modest the advances can be for authors, and how overworked/underpaid publishing professionals are. However, I’ve just started listening to the Publishing Rodeo podcast, which offers another kind of cautionary tale for aspiring authors.

When authors like myself imagine a trad pub career, we usually imagine ourselves as one of the industry success stories: books in stores around the world, reviews in the weekend newspapers, strong sales. What the Publishing Rodeo podcast does is shine a cold light on life as a mid-tier author: someone who the publishing company decides isn’t going to sell as many books, and then enacts business decisions that almost guarantee such an outcome. The mid-tier authors get smaller publicity/marketing budgets (if any) and may not receive audio versions or full international distribution of their releases. At times I feel embarrassed listening to co-presenter Scott Drakeford’s experiences with his epic fantasy debut (his publisher used the wrong author bio in their catalogue entry for his book!).

My takeaway from the Publishing Rodeo podcast is that unless you’re sure are on track to be a top-tier author at your trad pub company…you might be better self-publishing. Any book self-published via Amazon or Ingram Spark (the main distributors) gets into every country. As the self-publisher you make the decision on creating an audiobook. It’s shocking to me that a traditionally published author at a big publishing company may not even have that.

I suspect the secret to becoming a top-tier author (six figure advance, scheduled book tours, full weight of publicity/marketing budget, etc) is to have, like co-presenter Sunyi Dean, a high-concept novel. The title of Dean’s debut (The Book Eaters) is enough to arouse curiosity when you hear it, before knowing what the book is about. And having a book concept that’s (i) easy to explain (ii) sounds tasty (e.g. “it’s an African Games of Thrones“) makes it easier for in-house marketing teams to sell. But high-concept is subjective and anything Games of Thrones, for instance, may be less tasty now than it was in 2019.

That said, the decision to self vs trad pub depends on your personality (does the thought of marketing stress you out?), goals (if being an author is something you want to do full-time versus in addition to your main job), and the type of books you write (some genres like dark romance do well in self-publishing and are almost nonexistent in trad pub). But the more information you can gather before making your decision, the better.

Inspiration behind The Doctrines of Fire

My historical fantasy novel The Doctrines of Fire came out of research for a non-fiction book set in the same period. The non-fiction book doesn’t exist (yet), but it’s an expansion of my Physics Today article on Elizabeth Fulhame, a pioneering chemist. Elizabeth Fulhame was active in the late 18th century, lived in Edinburgh and interacted with Joseph Black (a professor of chemistry at the time). Hence a lot of background reading on those subjects.

I didn’t set out to spin a fiction book from my research, but during all that background reading two or three idle thoughts banged into each other within my head and formed a story.

Thought 1: “These 18th century scientific theories sound a lot like magic”

By the 1790s a lot of modern scientific principles were in place. Black’s principle of latent heat is still taught in university chemistry classes; elements like nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide were correctly isolated and characterised (though they had funny names like dephlogisticated air). Elizabeth Fulhame described water catalysis in mechanistic terms we know now to be surprisingly accurate. But scientists also believed substances like phlogiston and aether were sloshing around inside us controlling heat and our nervous system. These amorphously-defined substances appeared very alchemical and mystic to my modern ears.

Thought 2: “Joseph Black is absolutely fascinating.” 

Unfortunately the target of my search, Elizabeth Fulhame, left scant trace on the historical record. We have none of her correspondence. We don’t know her birthday, maiden name or when she married. With archival searches not getting me far, I turned to a historical figure whose life was well-documented, to see if I could detect any echoes of Fulhame in the record of Joseph Black.

I read notes transcribed in ~1776 from Black’s chemistry course, and was surprised to see he spent the first lecture of the term talking about imposter syndrome and good study habits, much the way lecture courses are kicked off today (medical students were advised to take Black’s course in their first year of study). Based on what we know of Black’s mid-career stagnation I suspected he had his own struggles with imposter syndrome. 

I then read the draft of a letter Black wrote to a former student objecting that the student expected him to pay for a rare metal he’d sourced. Pay for it yourself, Black retorted, I’ll consider it compensation “for the“extraordinary trouble I had correcting your dissertation.” In the ~1000 pages of Black’s edited correspondence, this is the only time we see Black lose his temper. And in the next draft of the letter (which he actually sent) he backtracked and diplomatically noted he was sure his former student had a better memory for payment arrangements than him. 

Much like Colin Firth’s fight with Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’ Diary convinced Matthew Vaughan to cast him in Kingsman, I realised Dr Joseph Black might also have a dark side.

Thought 3: “This is some Shakespearean sh*t right here.”

Another research lead I pursued was the link between Elizabeth Fulhame’s husband and Dr John Brown: the two names appeared on a contract together, and (like Joseph Black) John Brown left an impressive paper trail. Not much luck finding more than a signature, but the trajectory of Brown’s life fascinated me. Here was a man who came from provincial obscurity but was talented enough to dazzle the Edinburgh medical elite; who same legitimate flaws with the current state of medicine/medical theory and tried to revolutionise it; but who fell victim to his own hubris and the jealousy of the medical elite he tried to compete with. Brown was Cullen’s protege for a while, before the two men fell out. The falling out turned into a public spat, roping in the rest of the Edinburgh faculty and students. There were broadsides in the paper, altercations in the medical societies, attempts to ban Brown’s teachings, and the threat of criminal prosecution for some of Brown’s stunts.

Thought 3 then linked up with Thoughts 1 & 2. They were filtered through my love of historical thrillers like The Dante Club and The Alienist to create The Doctrines of Fire close to the form it currently exists in. There’s a Historical Note/Bibliography at the end of my novel where you can find the sources I consulted if you’re interested.

But what about Elizabeth Fulhame? She doesn’t (yet) have the biography she deserves…but you might be able to spot her in The Doctrines of Fire. She then becomes a protagonist in subsequent books, which is the least I can do for her!

Anatomy of a Book Opening: Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

A good novel will hook its reader from the first page. A great novel will lay out the themes and central conflict(s) within the first chapter. Here, I take a look at some of my favourite books, explaining why I believe their openings work so well.

Daughters of Night is the sequel to Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s award-winning debut Blood & Sugar. It features some of the original cast, but centres on a new murder mystery that takes place a few years after the first. The setting is late eighteenth century London.

Opening Lines

In the wrong hands a secret is a weapon.

Daughters of Night, page 1

While this opener doesn’t blow me out the water, it does succinctly convey what I’ll find in this historical crime novel: deception, peril, mystery, opposing (manipulative/hidden) forces.

Establishing Setting

Taking a ginger comfit from her enamelled pillbox…

Muslin, lace and brocade hemmed her in on every side; jewelled buttons flashing on embroidered waistcoats; pastel shades of periwig and kid glove; silver buckles glinting in the light of a thousand beeswax candles that filled the domed roof of the Rotunda with their honeyed scent.

Daughters of Night, page 1

Fashion and lighting are an easy way to establish time period for the reader. From this description of clothing we know we’re in the Georgian period: pre-gaslamp lighting, periwigs and embroidered waistcoats. It’s not subtle, but it’s not supposed to be. In the opening lines the author wants to set the tone of the book for the reader without causing confusion. I also know that this book is set in Georgian high society, since it seems to be opening with a depiction of a fancy party.

Her skin was hot as Hades.

Daughters of Night, page 2

In her Historical Note at the end of the book, Shepherd-Robinson explains that the Georgian fascination with classical mythology is one of the themes of her book. Deploying a classical metaphor in the opening pages is an obvious way to alert canny readers to the fact. The party that Caro, the protagonist, is attending is to celebrate the exhibition of an artist’s classical paintings.

The Authorial Flex

Before Caro stretched a fantasy-land: ten thousand lights adorning the trees and the supper-boxes and the Chinese pavilion.

Daughters of Night, page 2

Part of the reason we read historical fiction is to get lost in another era. Readers want a sensory experience; one that is accurate to the period in question. With her description of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Shepherd-Robinson is showing that she’s done her research into Georgian London and can deliver the sensory detail readers crave. I don’t just get a historically accurate depiction of the gardens: Shepherd-Robinson manages to evoke the wonder visitors would feel walking through the Gardens at night.

Her lips parted, her words a whisper: ‘He knows.’

Daughters of Night, page 6

This is a hefty paperback book at 559 pages, but within the first 6 pages we’ve witnessed the inciting incident: a woman murdered in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

Introducing the Protagonists

Walk away and do it like you mean it.

Peregrine Child rose from the table and crossed the tavern floor. Eyes focussed on the sawdust-strewn floorboards, he counted the seconds as he walked. One…two…three…

‘Thirteen guineas,’ Jenny Wren said.

Daughters of Night, page 7

My favourite fictional character is Samuel Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. So it shouldn’t be surprising that what really hooked me into Daughters of Night was the action-packed introduction of Child in chapter 2.

What I mean is that I love complex, cynical, morally grey, washed-up dudes slightly past their prime, who still manage to kick ass because they’re still sharp under their mountain of flaws. Child appeared in Shepherd-Robinson’s preceding novel as a minor character, so I was excited to see he’d have POV chapters in this one.

For me, this chapter is where Daughters of Night goes from having my curiosity to having my attention. Although the first chapter introduces Caro, we don’t get that close to her: we learn she has a dangerous secret, and that she has a bit of disdain for the high society she seems to be a part of – but that doesn’t do much to illustrate her personality or goals. The purpose of chapter 1 isn’t really to introduce Caro as a character, so much as establish the stakes (Caro’s unspecified secret) and the murder that kicks the story off. And I mean, I picked this book up knowing it was a historical crime thriller in which somebody was murdered, my reaction to the inciting incident is ‘Yup, that looks like a murder – good job, exactly what I was expecting to read about.’

In the 5 pages that make up chapter 2, we see Child successfully negotiate with a thief to get his client’s watch back, land a punch on a pickpocket trying to grab his purse, then get beaten up and threatened by Irish moneylenders.

‘I might be drunk,’ Child said, ‘but I’ve thirty years’ practice. Diligence in what you do, lad. That’s the key.’

Daughter of Night, page 10

We learn Child is a disgraced ex-magistrate, that he’s an alcoholic (which leads to lapses in his judgement), that he’s tough and streetwise, and that he’s a smart-arse.

That does it for me.

We also get a simple, compelling motivation for Child: he’s in debt, and has a week to find enough money to repay his vicious creditors. Even if we don’t know what Cato wants (yet), her male counterpart has enough motivation to carry the early chapters.


While the Georgian London setting is a little unusual, Shepherd-Robinson hits the key murder mystery beats within the first 10 pages that set the story in motion, with a nice tie-in to Daughters of Night’s overarching themes.

Anatomy of a Book Opening: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

A good novel will hook its reader from the first page. A great novel will lay out the themes and central conflict(s) within the first chapter. Here, I take a look at some of my favourite books, explaining why I believe their openings work so well.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo is a one of my favourite fantasy books, and easily my favourite dark academia novel. Readers are fascinated with the hidden, magical Yale campus Bardugo creates; though the novel’s adult themes (Ninth House features drug addiction, rape, abusive relationships and a system that protects the privileged) are tough to wade through. The novel’s sparkling, dark and gritty tone is established from the get-go.

The Opening Line

By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it.

Ninth House, page 1

Gentleman, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.

One sentence in, and Bardugo has already knocked it out of the park. Not only is this a memorable first line, it sets up the tone of the book perfectly. This is going to be a dark, cynical story brimming with violence. Alex may have saved her coat, but she’s too late to benefit from it.

Time and Place

The secret rooms above the shop were affectionately known as the Hutch by Lethe members, and the commercial space beneath them had been, at varying times, a shoe store, a wilderness outfitter, and a twenty-four-hour Wawa mini-mart with its own Taco Bell counter.

Ninth House, page 1

As a reader, as I leaf through the first few pages of a new book, I should be curious…but never confused. Midway down the first page I have no idea who Alex is (beside suspecting she’s the protagonist), why she’s got blood on her coat, or what exactly she’s going. But I’m no not confused by the setting: by choosing to include these unnecessary details about the shops in the building, I can deduce we’re in the USA (Wawa – specific to the North-east coast – and Taco Bell). The use of modern brand names tell me the story is set in modern times, in an America that resembles ‘the real world.’

Introducing the Magic System

The Lethe diaries from those years were filled with complaints about the stink of refried beans and grilled onions seeping up through the floor – until 1995, when someone had enchanted the Hutch and the back staircase that led to the alley so that they smelled always of fabric softener and clove.

Ninth House, page 1

I suspect it’s a very deliberate artistic choice on the part of Bardugo to bring in the existence of magic after the establishing the violent, dark tone and the contemporary American setting. I love the magic in Ninth House, but it’s always deployed in the service of the novel’s main themes.

With the first mention of magic, we’re given a taste of what those themes are. Here, magical is used for a trivial purpose – improving the smell of the Hutch. Magic is not being used to affect social change, or fight evil – instead it’s used to make someone’s life more convenient. The (mis)use of magic to uphold privilege is a big part of Ninth House, and something Bardugo will return to repeatedly.

The other thing to note is we don’t learn much about the magic system at this point, only that there is one. I don’t know how the magic works, what it’s limitations are, or how many people know about magic and/or can wield it.


No one came to check on her. There was no one left.

Ninth House, page 2

The wound was getting infected. She felt some kind of concern, her mind nudging her towards self-preservation, but the idea of picking up the phone…was overwhelming.

Ninth House, page 4

The Prologue establishes Alex is stranded in the Hutch, a kind of hidden emergency shelter, in the aftermath of an incident that left her injured and isolated. She reflects on her outsider status and her lack of social support. While she recognises she should return to the outside world to seek medical attention, she decides against doing so. To the reader there doesn’t seem to be an external threat waiting for Alex outside the Hutch, it’s just that she doesn’t want to leave.

Ninth House is a book about recovering from trauma. As we’ll learn, Alex has a lot of trauma to unpack that stems from her childhood onwards, but the violent attack alluded to in the Prologue is that trauma in miniature. In the Prologue, Alex believes that no one cares about her. She knows intellectually that she should venture out into the world and confront/address her injuries, but doing so feels impossible.

After the Prologue, we’re going to see Alex face the same dilemmas. Is there anyone she can trust? Is Alex really as isolated as she believes? How can she confront her traumas? How has trauma affected her self-preservation instincts? How does her trauma help or hinder her? It’s already clear in these first few pages that this is a dark, messy story, so Alex’s journey is likely to be dark and messy. Like her bloodied coat, attempts to fix herself might come too late.

The Authorial Flex

Even the big metal sculpture that she now knew was by Alexander Calder reminded her of a giant lava lamp in negative.

“It’s Calder,” she murmured beneath her breath. That was the way people here talked about art. Nothing was by anyone. The sculpture is Calder. The painting is Rothko. The house is Neutra.

Ninth House, page 7

An author shouldn’t overwhelm the reader with similes, metaphors and linguistic flourishes within the first few pages, but (with Look Inside previews of e-books now a huge factor swaying readers’ decision to buy or ignore) there should be something good near the start of the book to convince the reader that the writer can deliver memorable prose and ideas.

With these lines at the start of chapter 1, the reader gets an insight into how Alex (and Bardugo) sees the world. By page 7 we know the story is set at Yale, an Ivy League university, and that Alex is an outsider thanks to her background and trauma. This small detail about how the privileged students around Alex talk about art is brilliant – it’s unexpected and original (if you wanted to illustrate privilege and disconnect in a single example, what first springs to mind?), but rings true. Since Bardugo was educated at Yale, I suspect this snippet comes from her own experiences.


While some readers found Ninth House’s darkness difficult to get through, Bardugo sets up reader’s expectations from the first page, and hooks us with a small mystery.