Sue Bentley on writing fiction books: a famous author’s views

Thinking of writing a fiction book? Here are some cold, hard yet still heart-warming facts about a successful writer’s journey, by millions-selling children’s author Sue Bentley whom I met at a recent book fair, and who kindly has shared her experiences and advice in this article.

Writing books isn't easy by a famous author

Sue Bentley: If people like you and find you interesting, they will want to read your books

Here Sue tells it how it is, and was, so helping new authors get a realistic view of book writing – even from the top. Over to Sue…

Writing fiction books: not the fastest way to riches

I write books for a living. I began learning the craft while working at my day job.

After collecting piles of rejection letters over a number of years I was eventually published. I celebrated signing to a traditional trade publisher.

And on being paid my first advance, I thought, great, I’m on my way! No more day job.

But it took many years, and writing a lot of books before I could afford to write full-time. That’s one way of making a career in writing. It was how the industry worked when I started writing, but things have changed dramatically.

Traditional trade publishing can be reassuring

One thing that stands out is that writers’ earnings are shrinking. According to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) an author earning £15,450 in 2005 was, by 2013 earning £11,000.

Numbers of people earning a living from writing alone have dropped from 40% to 11.5% and it’s getting worse. So how has this affected the business of writing for the prospective author? And what are the choices in today’s market?

For most of my career I’ve been commissioned to write both my adult and children’s books; which means that I sold the book to a traditional publisher on the back of three chapters and an outline. This suited me very well.

I like the security of knowing my publisher wanted my book.

Deadlines are a great motivation. And I like getting paid an advance up-front. (Advances are divided into thirds, you’re paid one third on signing the contract, a third when a publisher accepts your finished manuscript, and the final third when your book’s published)

That book-writing model is rare today

Few publishers now work this way, even with established authors. Generally, you’re expected to finish a book before submitting it. Which means writing on-spec, with no payment up-front.

Even when commissioned, as I have described, you still had all the hard work of writing, editing, finessing and finishing a book.

But having the support of your publishing house and an editor who understands your work, can really build a writer’s confidence, something we all struggle with.

Traditional trade publishers today: no money for decent marketing

Publisher’s budgets for marketing and distribution, PR and book launches are not what they were.

These days, you probably won’t get a book launch unless you pay for it yourself. And writers are expected to do a great deal of their own marketing and PR.

Which puts us all in a similar position to those who decide to self-publish or sign to a digital publisher. Small wonder that so many writers are looking for alternatives to the traditional route of getting published.

Along with many more opportunities to seeing your book in print, there’s often confusion.

So what are those opportunities?

Self-publishing (usually called Independent Publishing) is a case in point. Just to be clear, if you pay any money up-front to a publisher for them to produce your paperback – you are self-published. Your ‘publisher’ might offer a limited amount of promotion.

But the onus will be almost entirely on you to distribute your books (into bookshops, sell at author events, promote in any way you can, store boxes of them in your garage etc.)

It takes a huge amount of hard work to get your books noticed, and you will have to sell shedloads of copies before you recoup much of your outlay, let alone break even. If you can afford it and have the time to do the leg-work, it can work for you.

Alternative methods of getting published

You may choose to bypass hard copies and go straight into digital.

It’s never been so straight-forward to bring out an e-book, especially with platforms like Amazon. And you can sign up to Amazon Associates, for a link on your blog or website. Each time someone buys your book via that link you get a little cut of income.

Ad Sense is worth considering if you blog on ‘Blogger’ as ads go onto your blog and you’ll get paid if someone clicks on that ad. It’s also worthwhile to do a CreateSpace – offer a print-on-demand version. You’ll earn a little each time one’s sold.

You still have to do most of your own promotion and PR. It’s a very crowded market and you face a lot of competition. Also Amazon will not promote your books until you have 20 or more reviews.

How about a digital publisher for your book?

Another choice, and this is my preference, is to sign to a digital publisher.

This can be seen as a half-way house between traditional (trade) and independent (self) publishing.

A digital publishing house won’t pay you an advance, but they will absorb the costs of producing your e-book. They’ll work hard to promote and sell it and pay you royalties on each sale. If sales are healthy, they may even produce your book in paperback.

Signing to a digital publisher is also a good option if you’re an established author with a backlist of out-of-print titles; you will need to have retained/recovered your copyright. Such a back-list is print-ready, and the journey into e-book straight forward.

With no outlay on your part, you can earn royalties from previously published work. Win, win, for you and your digital publisher.

How can you support yourself – in a related way that supports your books – while you’re writing?

While you’re waiting for your paperback or e-book to take off, what can you do to earn your keep? Ask yourself this – what’s my speciality?

If you’re interested in or fascinated by something, chances are other people will be too. Consider teaching, running on-line workshops, writing a blog, creating a lively website, or writing articles for relevant magazines, online or print versions.

If people like you and find you interesting, they will want to read your books.

And don’t forget to add a short bio/bibliography and all your links, to everything, so readers can buy your book.

And some final words of advice from Sue on writing books:

  • Publishing in today’s crowded market is a challenge.
  • Writing a fiction book is hard enough, without the on-going learning curve and angst of self-promotion.
  • Sometimes sticking one’s head in the sand seems the best option. There’s only one reason to go on – because you have to write.
  • You’re a writer, it’s in your blood, and you have no choice. But you have a world of opportunities. Good Luck!

About Sue and her writing

Sue was born and still lives in Northamptonshire, England, where she worked for many years in the Counties Libraries. She is a self-taught writer and says she learned everything she knows from reading.

Her favourite quote is by Ray Bradbury: ‘Read lots of books, write every day, and see what happens.’

Sue writes mainly fiction, for adults, young adults, and children. Since first being published in the late 1990s she’s had around 80 books published under a number of pseudonyms.

She contributed to best-selling children’s series, including Animal Ark and Rainbow Magic.

Her own series for 5-9 year olds, Magic Kitten, Magic Puppy, Magic Ponies and Magic Bunny, have sold millions of copies worldwide. Sue’s latest book is We Other, a darkly disturbing fairy tale for young adults. You wouldn’t want to meet these fairies when alone at night.

Reviewers say of “We Other”…
“Amazon 5 stars. ‘Lights the Blue Touch paper and runs away.”
“Goodreads 5 stars. ‘Absolutely wonderful. Kept me guessing all the way to the end!”

When not writing Sue enjoys walking, the cinema, and researching for her books. She is also a sometime mixed-media artist. She is presently at work on Frozen Charlotte, a dark and twisted tale set in Victorian times and the present day.

Do you have any questions for Sue about writing books?

If so please share them in the comments below, or email them to me privately on




  1. Excellent! Thanks. Sue, I have seen your gorgeous Instagram posts. Do you create these because you love to and because it helps your brand and promotions?

  2. Excellent and thanks. Sue, I enjoy seeing your gorgeous Instagram posts. Do you create them because you love to do this? Is it part of your marketing strategy?


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