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John Howard: The Key to Self Publishing

After 30 standard rejection letters from agents and publishers to his 'Da Vinci code for kids' book The Key to Chintak, author John Howard copied out the instruction manual for his washing machine and sent it off again. When exactly the same 'we have read you're manuscript but sadly already have too many similar titles' rejection letters came back he realised no-one had read it the first time, and got the confidence to go it alone.

Self publishing the book and tirelessly touring dozens of primary schools in the south east John - who failed his English O Level and has dyslexia - has been met with constant acclaim from children saying it's 'much better than Potter' and 'the best book ever'. 5000 copies later...

key to chintak cover...and with the first edition going for up to £300 on eBay and interest from 24 foreign publishers for overseas rights I had to find out how he had gone about straggling the worlds of writing and business so successfully. (And not before I had seriously considered picking up the film rights myself against the likelihood it will end up in the hands of - like Chintak fan and forward writer GP Taylor's Shadowmancer - a US major).

When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Alas, dyslexia and a wandering mind held me back somewhat at school. I actually failed English O’ Level so there’s hope for everybody!

What gave you the confidence to quit your day job to be a writer full time?
I thought (foolishly maybe) that if I wanted other people to believe in my work then I needed to show I believed myself. I gave up a highly paid job, in a profession that I’d specialised in for 15 years, to write full time. The road has been rocky since to say the least, but I still think it was worth it!!!

Here’s why part time doesn’t work for me - 8 years ago, whilst still working full time, I wrote a young James Bond book and part of a film script, and sent both to a number of agents. All rejected it with one going out of their way to tell me I was way off the mark if I believed that children of the day wanted to read/watch young James Bond. The inference being I should hang onto my day job, which I did. And now we have young James Bond, as depicted by Charlie Higson, as well as the young Bond-like character scribed by Anthony Horowitz, one master Alex Rider, just about everywhere. The latter making his way onto the big screen as I write.

I’m pretty certain that if I’d have had my finger on the pulse more back then - namely thrown myself into writing full time, I would have stuck to my guns and ploughed on. Instead I burnt the MS and tended to my bruised ego.

What was your experience sending the manuscript to publishers?
Because of what happened with the Young James Bond MS and script I decided to test The Key to Chintak on kids prior to submitting it to agents. I saw about 500 kids in schools and the response was amazing. I was quietly confident that the agents would snap my hand off when I submitted the first three chapters because I also sent in around 50 letters from children saying they thought it was the best book ever. However, several months later the rejections rolled in.

I didn’t believe they were turning the title page, as I had so much support from kids, so I decided to test three agents by scanning in my washing machine user guide and submitting that as a story entitled (something like) ‘The steel drum’. Sure enough, two out of three rejected it with the same reply as before, that they had read and enjoyed my submission, but didn’t feel it was for them! It was as that point that I decided to go alone.

The Key to Chintak has now sold thousands and thousands of copies, in Sussex alone, and the second edition has just gone nationwide with Waterstones promoting it in a 3 for 2 offer. WHsmith airports have also thrown their weight behind the book.

How hard did you find it self publishing? Would you recommend it?
Self publishing has got to be the hardest route into market of all. I would recommend it only in you’re an expert at self promotion and willing to work flat out for a long, long time to establish your name. It is not for the shy or humble. Also, stick your pride and ego in a box before you start.

How did you go about promoting the book?
Any way I can. I still visit schools (43 and almost 4500 kids so far) with over 300 requesting I visit in the future. I will carry on touring as long as I need to.

I constantly make the local and national press aware of my story and how it’s developing. I have been in loads of local papers. I have also been on local radio and TV. Nobody has come to me - it has all been self generated. If you believe for one minute that people are going to come running to you then don’t go into self publishing.

Use professionals where you need to. I have paid out for a PR company to release a press release and also paid out to have a marketing leaflet go into every bookseller bag at the recent London book fair. The PR statement generated interest from The Times and the Sunday Telegraph and from a London radio station. Both paid for themselves.

I am constantly on the phone or on email, prodding, and cajoling, making things happen. I recently sent out over 150 free books to all the local and national press. I have also been known to stand in the rain for hours to hand my book over to the right person in the media spotlight.

The list is endless. Basically, if you are twiddling your fingers at any point during the day then you are not doing your job as a self publisher. Nobody knows you unless you tell them. That includes book shops. I have spoke to hundreds of them as well.

Why do you think children respond so well to the book?
Simple - they like the story. It is a mix of fact and fiction; not so often used in children’s books. The story is about a 12-year-old girl who discovers that she is the only one who can read from the blank pages of an ancient book. A book that leads her and her grandad on a global adventure to piece together a key in order to free a trapped race of children. The story weaves in lots of true life mysteries as it unfolds.

What about adults, do they like it?
Yes! Best place to see what they say is on the book’s website fortunately for me some influential adults have picked up on the book. The head buyers at both Waterstones and WHsmith airports both love the book. As does the man who set-up BookScan, and the ex-CEO of ITV. I guess the most famous person to rave about my book is G.P. Taylor - he of Shadowmancer fame - who went as far as providing a glowing foreword for the second edition. Something he has not done for anyone before.

And the book is now selling for £250 on ebay – it is unusual for a first edition to get collector status so fast – why do you think that is?
I think it’s unusual for a self published book to achieve such figures. Actually I don’t have an Ebay account. At the minute I would rather concentrate on the new second edition, but I can’t deny the interest it is generating amongst collectors is good for the book. I have actually donated the bulk of my first editions to my local hospice shop.

British fantasy adventure books are still very hot in Hollywood right now. Are there any plans for a film version?
I have a number of very exciting possibilities in this area right now. In the USA 3 major film studios have requested the book and the film treatment - as have a major UK Media company who are threatening to make an offer any time soon. Watch this space.

Are you still publishing the book yourself?
Yes. As well as the foreign rights publishers I mentioned before, there are a number of UK, US, and Australian publishers expressing an interest, but as of right now I’m still independent.

Can you tell us anything about the next book(s)?
The Key to Chintak is the first of three in the Zamorian Chronicles series. That is as much as I can tell - I want to keep the rest up my sleeve!

Have you any advice for a writer looking at following in your footsteps – things you wish you had known at the beginning?
I hope that what I have said so far will help to some extent, but self publishing is one of those things that you will not fully understand or appreciate until you have taken the plunge. I guess my best bit of advice would be to prepare yourself for one hell of a fight to compete with the big boys!

for more information on the book, to read an extra and some the feedback - check out

by Admin

Published 18 May 2006
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