Press Coverage 5
Where to find 1,300 pages of advice for writers
It was the height of the dotcom boom. Made redundant in spring 2000, by early 2001 I was keen to set up my own business. A website seemed an obvious idea and what better target than aspiring writers? I had always thought publishers’ slush piles a barrier for authors. With writers’ anxiety about them mounting, it seemed a good time to provide help to get published. After a lifetime in publishing I certainly knew what writers were up against from the inside. So I teamed up with an old friend, Chas Jonesauthor; formerly nerd responsible for keeping the site running; spent over 25 years in computer business; started out dusting bugs off valves, but in time graduated to writing software and managing projects; as published author with stack of waiting-to-be-published manuscripts tucked away, WritersServices is answer to his silent prayer; his book 'Ordinary Heroes' An extraordinary true story of wartime adventure; recently published book about Battle of Fulford-'Fulford the forgotten battle of 1066', published by Tempus ISBN 0752438107, who had the technical knowledge I lacked. And so WritersServices was born.
Right from the start WritersServices had big ambitions. We wanted to attract a global audience and to make sure that the writers who visited the site would come back time and time again. So we set up the website and started writing pages at a furious speed, using my knowledge of publishing and Chas’s knowledge of the web to build a vast amount of information very quickly.
We wanted to provide professional editorial services for our writers and to test out the still slightly audacious idea that you could use email to send manuscripts round the world, cheaply and quickly. We recruited experienced freelancers I had worked with for years and soon found that the system worked. No-one wants to read on-screen, but a fast printer and good supply of cheap paper saves all that lugging-around of manuscripts.
For WritersServices to attract return visits there had to be new content. We persuaded the veteran author of many books for writers, Michael Legat, to distil what he knew into a series of Factsheets for the website. Agent Carole Blake agreed to let us run a monthly excerpt from her book From Pitch to Publication, which proved so popular that we are repeating it this year. And because we wanted the site to provide fun as well as hard information, we took on Bob G Ritchie to write a regular column about the travails of getting published, the Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer.
Traffic to the site started to build and we felt we were on our way. But, like all new businesses, we had not realised how long it would take to get everything going. Launched at the London Book Fair in March 2001, it took most of the rest of the year to sort out the technical side of the website, including getting set up on our server and making sure the secure payment provider was working.
We’ve always wanted to put as much free information as possible on the site, so our next move was to sub-lease the UK and US agency listings from The Writer’s Handbook, which have turned out to be a tremendous draw. We were flattered and pleased last year when the Authors’ Agents Association, which provides members’ names but no other information on its own website, set up a link direct to our listings for all the writers wanting contact information.
As well as a monthly Magazine, which is extremely basic by the standards of this august publication (Writers' ForumBritish writers' magazine which is highly recommended for all writers. It features wide range of news and articles which help writers to improve their work and get published: www.writers-forum.com), we have always provided a weekly update, with a short News Review andndomment. It wasn’t long before we realised that more information was key to the writers visiting the site, so I started writing what is now a 10-part series called Inside Publishing, dealing with the nuts and bolts such as advances and royalties and what the marketing department does. Other advice for writers on subjects such as making submissions and finding an agent followed. Chas produced a large number of articles showing how writers could get the most out of the web and avoid the health hazards of working on the computer.
Throughout all this time, Chas as site manager was promoting the website to the search engines and I was talking it up to the publishing world, with its many contacts with writers. We lacked the investment to advertise and grow the traffic to the site quickly, so were forced to rely on word-of-mouth from satisfied visitors. And, just as word-of-mouth is the best marketing tool for books, so it proved for our audience of writers.
More bright ideas were sparked off as we went along and quickly put on the site. Revelling in the freedom from corporate decision-making, we enjoyed to the full the entrepreneurial freedom to follow our hunches, even though some have proved to be better in practice than others. Some may be ideas whose time has not yet come. So next we set up our WritersBookstall, linked to Amazon, but providing a categorised listing of books for writers. It’s been an interesting challenge to have to think like a bookseller and gives you a different view of all those books out there.
Next there was our WritersPrintshop, a design, production and distribution service for self-publishers. With our usual over-the-top dedication to detail, we provided 45 pages telling you how to go about it. Print on demand uses pretty amazing technology and I am a convert to the idea of paying a slightly higher margin and avoiding tying your money up in books. This is an approach which could revolutionise publishing by providing affordable access to it and avoiding the huge wastage currently involved. For writers it provides quality and low-cost access to self-publishing.
The services have blossomed from the first obvious ones - reports, editing and copy-editing - to include contract-vetting, children’s editorial services, scriptwriting and rewriting. We’re rather pleased with our latest, very international, idea, which is manuscript polishing for writers who write in English, but for whom it is not their native language.
We would like the site to be more interactive and for writers to come to it and use it as their own. So far our Discussion Group is building slowly and the WritersShowcase, currently free to writers who want to post their work on the site, is also gradually filling up.
But WritersServices is getting quite big. Not only do we now have well over a thousand pages (1100 at last count, but we’re adding them every week) but we also attract a substantial number of visitors. We think many of them are regulars, but we have no way of knowing. We currently have over 17,000 visitors a week from all over the world and the numbers are growing every month. Last week they looked at 70,000 pages.
So where do we go from here? First of all we need to turn this big site into a revenue-making business. We think our model of providing quality editorial and self-publishing services, linked to a good online bookshop, provides scope for revenue growth. We intend to keep the cost of running the business tightly under control. We will take some advertising, but not so much that it irritates our visitors. And we still have plenty of ideas for growing the site and developing it as an online resource. Of course there’s plenty of competition, but writers span the globe and for a website for writers, the world is literally our oyster.
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Read this month's column from the editor, John Jenkins.