Tag:  Can you make money in self publishing?

“I owe my writing career to my dogs,” and other secrets of publishing success. Interview with C.A. Newsome.

C. A. (Carol Ann) Newsome writes the Lia Anderson Dog Park Mysteries, a series of funny, romantic suspense/mystery novels which are inspired by and centered around her mornings at the Mount Airy Dog Park with her trio of rescue dogs. She is also an artist with an M.F.A. from the University of Cincinnati, and you’ll see portraits of some of her favorite four-footed friends on the covers of her books. Her other interests include astrology, raw food, and all forms of psychic phenomena. She likes to sing to her dogs. The dogs are the only ones who like to listen.

 

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): There’s an old showbiz adage, “Never work with children or animals,” and yet you’ve chosen to base much of your writing career on dogs, namely your Lia Anderson Dog Park Mysteries. Any regrets? I suppose the clean up and care of imaginary dogs is probably easier

C.A. Newsome (CAN): I owe my writing career (and more) to my dogs and my dog park friends, so no regrets. The nice thing about writing about animals is that they never complain about the way you portray them in books. When I was an artist, I always painted from real life or photographs. I’m like that in my writing as well. My plots are extrapolations inspired by the people, places, and dogs I encounter in daily life.

Another bonus, I think it’s easier to gain a foothold in the market if you publish in a niche category. There just aren’t that many dog mysteries out there, so dog lovers are more likely to take a chance on an indie author.

It’s a double-edged sword, though. My current concern is not getting ghetto-ised as a “dog author.” There’s a lot in the books to appeal to people beyond the furred ones.

MFM: My own second novel, A Death in Duck, features a Doberman. I tried to make him as realistically “dog like” as possible, because I have a serious aversion to anthropomorphic pets solving crimes (although I do make an exception for Scooby Doo, obviously). Where do you stand on this divisive, hot button issue–the cozy mystery equivalent of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

CAN: I loved Spencer Quinn’s Dog On It Mysteries, but I have no desire to write the internal life of a dog. Not that I don’t think animals are smart enough. My experiences with animal communicators has convinced me that dogs are more aware than we give them credit for. But they use their brains to attend to doggie priorities. They sniff out dog treats and dead animals, not murderers.

My fictional dogs act like real dogs. They eat dirt. They steal remotes. They shed. They eat your pizza when you aren’t looking.

MFM: Several of your reviews use words like “easy read” and “light mystery” to describe your books. How do you feel about your books being described that way? Author Julie Anne Lindsey suggested that those of us who write funny cozies should band together under the hashtag #TeamFluff

CAN: Call me light, call me easy, Just don’t call me silly.

I want my books to be easy to read. I want people to forget they’re reading and get lost in my stories. That, to me, is the sign of good writing. And I think we need to take what we do seriously. What we do has proven therapeutic value. We give people a break from their daily grind. We help them shift their mood and their attitude. We make them laugh at the foibles of life. We leave them refreshed and in a positive frame of mind.

MFM: You made the decision to “permafree” the first book in your series, A Shot in the Bark on Amazon, which means that even though it’s been downloaded eleventy gajillion times (exact total as of today), you get zero dollars in royalties from it. How did you decide that the permafree risk was worth taking?

CAN: I’m blessed in my online writer friends. We share our experiences across all phases of our work, from writer’s block to marketing. I was able to see pre and post perma-free sales of other book series, so I didn’t feel like I was taking a risk. Perma-free for first in a series works as one part of a marketing strategy, IF the book is engaging enough to make readers want more.

One of my author associates is Russell Blake (who co-authored the latest Clive Cussler). He’s very open about everything he does to create his success. His blog is http://russellblake.com It’s a great resource for indies.

MFM: I’ve read a lot of blogs with writing advice, including my own(!), but your blog advice for writers is genuinely one of my favorites. I’ll just pick out a couple stellar quotes:

“Most people can knock out 500 words in the time they waste watching a Star Trek rerun.”

“Somebody had to invent Jane Austen with Zombies.”

“While Barbie might be a paleontologist one day and Supergirl the next, your characters may not.”

One thing I think you’re missing, though, is the importance of getting honest feedback from talented writers and/or insightful readers. Now that the Holy Grail of becoming a published author is more attainable than ever before, getting somebody other than your mom to read your stuff is essential for knowing if your stuff is awesome or if it sucks like a medieval leech doctor. Unless your mom is my mom, and then you’ll get PLENTY of “constructive criticism” and “feedback” on everything you endeavor to do. Hmm… I realize that this has become more of a therapy session for me than a question for you, so, I’ll just prompt you in the style of Mike Myers’s Linda Richman character from SNL: The importance of honest feedback for newbie writers. Discuss…

CAN: Thank you for the lovely compliment! I didn’t mention feedback in that particular post because I wrote it for someone who was scribbling and aspiring, but not at the point where feedback would be beneficial. If  you dig further into my archives, you’ll find How to be a Better Beta Reader: http://canewsome.com/2013/10/05/how-to-be-a-better-beta-reader/

I absolutely believe in getting feedback for two reasons. 1) If you plan to publish, you are developing a product as much as you are expressing yourself, and you damn well better have an idea how people are responding to your stuff. 2) Reading a book is usually a one time experience. You cannot experience your own book the way a first time reader does unless you ditch your manuscript and run across it ten years later. Which I don’t advise.

However, for feedback to be useful, you must first be grounded in your own vision.

I learned in art school that when another artist critiques your work, they are  most likely going to tell you how they would do it. So we would have some hot-shot visiting artist come in, and they would tell me what they liked about my work and thought I should do, and it would be the exact opposite of what another hot-shot artist told me the week before. If you don’t want your work to wind up looking like a copy of your favorite teacher, you need to start by pleasing yourself.

You don’t look at your significant other and ask, “Is this how I like my hamburger?” You just know that it tastes good to you and hopefully you don’t care what anyone else thinks about the sardines and marshmallows you put on it.

When I taught drawing, one of my mantras was “Being an artist means having an opinion.” You have to be able to tap into your gut when you look at your work and decide what you want and how you want it.

So I’d get a talented kid who was looking to me to tell them whether something was good, or if they were going about it the right way, and I’d say, “What do you think?” And since they were used to doing what their teacher said and earning gold stars, that would drive them crazy. But the arts are the one place where you can do exactly what your teacher says and end up with an epic fail.

You also need to get feedback from people who like the sort of thing you’re writing. One of my first betas loves John Grisham, and kept suggesting his books to me. I finally picked one up and discovered that the bits she loved, bored me to death. We are both relieved that she no longer reads for me.

Right now, I’m preparing to send my fourth novel, Sneak Thief, out to more than a dozen beta readers solicited through my mailing list. In this installment of Lia and Peter’s story, Lia meets a new BFF, Desiree, who is being stalked by an anonymous admirer. When Desiree turns up dead, Lia is convinced the detectives assigned to the case are on the wrong track and starts snooping. Sneak Thief refers to Desiree’s beagle, Julia, who creates havoc with her larceny.

Her name is Allison Janda, and she’s a blogaholic.

Bestselling mystery writer Allison Janda, author of the food and photography-themed Marian Moyer cozies, debates the existence of writers block, talks about sexy food photography, and confesses to her blogging addiction.  

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): I love your protagonist’s profession–food and crime scene photographer–partly because it’s plausible that she would actually have access to information about murders. It drives me nuts when, say, a glassblower or a pastry chef or a friggin’ housecat ends up stumbling across piles of dead bodies everywhere she goes! How important is it to you that your stories are realistic?

Allison Janda (AJ): Originally, Marian was just going to be owner and photographer for Food Porn, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. As you said, it just wasn’t realistic for her to start suddenly getting wrapped up in these crazy crime dramas as the head of a magazine. My leading lady needed to be intelligent and savvy when solving crimes, but she needed room to grow as a character, and room to make mistakes.

That’s when my idea for a late 20-something crime scene photographer came about. I felt the age and profession would give Marian some basic insights to her work, but with room to come into her own as she continued to get better and climb the ladder.

MFM: Your heroine has often been compared to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum character. Is that a fair comparison?

AJ: First of all, that’s just a flattering statement because Janet Evanovich is a ridiculously talented writer. That being said, if readers think Marian Moyer is funny, quirky and bad-ass in a similar way as Stephanie Plum, well, that’s pretty flattering, too.

MFM: You are a blogger extraordinaire. Has that been an effective way for you to connect with readers? Or is it more of a creative outlet? Or are you just some kind of out-of-control blogaholic in need of a 12-step intervention?

AJ: My name is Allison, and I am a blogaholic. I didn’t start out that way – I had one blog, Journey Versus Destination, for personal whimsy and motivational posts and all of that. It was my way to connect with other bloggers. Then, I got the idea for a 365 project, but to involve the story element, I needed a platform where I could keep tabs on my ideas for future stories. So was born 365 With A Twist. THEN I realized that over the past few months, I’d been doling out requested advice that has worked for me when battling my writer’s block and I figured – why not just post it for everyone to see and use? Out of that brilliant brain child came Writer’s Block is Real. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite blog – I can’t. They’re like children.

MFM: One of your blogs is entitled Writer’s Block is Real. I’ve gone on the record saying that it isn’t. Do you and I need to meet down by the bleachers and duke this out?

AJ: Ha! With my luck, I’d trip halfway up/down the bleachers and you’d win by default.

In your blog, you’d said “You may or may not have a natural talent, but either way, if you don’t put in the work, you’re gonna end up with nothing or with junk.” True. However, consider this: I believe my writing ability is a natural talent. The only one I have, by the way, so please don’t ask me to dance, swim or climb things (like bleachers or rocks).

I make sure to write daily. To improve. To try new ways of going about my words. But I can’t tell you how many times a week my words just totally fail me. It’s not even that they’re crummy – they just aren’t there. I write junk all the time. But for me, writing junk and not being able to form words into words at all, are different scenarios. The later is writer’s block as far as I’m concerned. I’m not anxious or worried or skipping my daily practice – I just don’t have anything.

Plus, I think you’ll find, many exercises in that blog are for practice. I too believe that honing your talent is part of the process – sometimes we just need a little help figuring out how to do so. What someone may think is “writer’s block” could be nothing more than “I have no idea what I’m doing.” That’s cool. The blog is for anyone who just needs a little insight into a new way to write. The title is just to stir the pot a bit.

MFM: As a best-selling author, can you share your number one, super secret, oh-so-effective marketing tip for newbie writers? I promise I won’t tell anyone (who doesn’t have the internet or speak English).

AJ: Oh my gosh. There’s a secret?! I wish someone had told me so that I didn’t have to work so hard! But seriously, the secret is to just keep working. Nope, work harder than that.

Also, build relationships. I don’t know if that’s much of a secret, but the bottom line is, people don’t have to read my stuff. If someone chooses my book – be it through a free giveaway or if they pay $2.99 on Amazon – that’s just humbling.

Readers deserve to know you appreciate that out of all the books in all the world, they took time out of their busy day to read yours. Thank them. If they e-mail you, even to say something disheartening, respond quickly and kindly. Simple, courteous stuff.

MFM: How did you make the decision to self-publish? Feel free to make up some crazy story about how you were pressganged by a Burmese drug syndicate who chained you up Princess Leia-style and forced you to churn out cozy mysteries. Or you can tell the truth.

AJ: In actuality, I WAS p- wait, can they see this?

Here’s the thing: I’d submitted my manuscript multiple times and just never heard back. That’s so disheartening. Ultimately, there was a lot of time and work and money put into creating a product I was proud of. Rather than be Cinderella waiting for my prince, hoping my luck would change, I decided to simply take charge. My SO knew quite a bit about self-publishing and with his help and the help of an amazing graphic designer, a real book was born. If you’d like a fuller explanation, you can read my blog about this very topic.

MFM: If you could go back and give your former self a bit of advice when you were just starting your first novel, what would it be?

Stop doubting yourself because fear is a yawn-fest. Just write. Love the process. Enjoy the product. Publish it. Rip it up. Stuff it in a drawer. Who cares? It’s art, not brain surgery. Quit worrying about it so much – and write.


ALLISON JANDA BIO

Writer, creative and owner of Curly Q Media, Allison Janda has dreams of writing a New York Times Bestseller and believes that most life challenges should be faced while one is holding a glass of wine and a Reese’s. She began writing in third grade and simply never stopped.

After attending Marquette University, Allison made a few pit stops on her way to becoming a full-time writer but never lost sight of the dream. She began a project entitled 365 With A Twist wherein she would write short stories along with a photograph she’d taken that day. When Allison couldn’t get one of the shorts out of her head, she just knew that this was to be her first novel. The short turned into book one of the Marian Moyer Series: Sex, Murder and Killer Cupcakes.

To learn more about Allison or to purchase her books, please visit www.AllisonJanda.com.

BookBub is my new husband.

Screenshot 2014-08-09 09.27.42Who, you ask, is that fancy person sitting on Amazon’s bestseller charts at Number 12 alongside Janet Evanovich and J.K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith)? Why it’s lil’ old me, with my BESTSELLING novel A Murder in Mount MoriahAnd how did a lowly self-published author reach these heady heights? Just ask my new husband, BookBub

With apologies to my actual husband, BookBub pleases me in ways that my actual husband never could, namely by selling a bub-load of my books. My husband has a lot of excellent qualities, but he has never sold 1,300 copies of my book in a single day the way that BookBub did.

For the uninitiated, BookBub is a company that sends daily email alerts about bargain books to their enormous subscriber list. In their own words:

BookBub features ebooks ranging from top-tier publishers to critically acclaimed independent authors. Our team of experts makes sure that we’re only featuring great deals on quality books that you’ll love. 

Note the section I’ve marked in bold. BookBub differs from other marketing avenues in that they feature indy/self-published books alongside traditionally published books. Although it is a paid service (and a very expensive one at that), there are no guarantees that they’ll allow you the privilege of forking over your cold, hard cash to them. I’ve heard of several instances where they reject books that aren’t well reviewed or that they don’t think will please their readership. They curate their offerings so that readers can be fairly certain of getting a book that is interesting, well-written and well-edited.

I realize that I’m gushing, and I don’t want to come across as a BookBub schill. But there is simply no other single marketing service that can deliver the kind of sales boost that I and some of my indy publishing friends experienced after our books were featured.

Here are my tips for deploying the B-Bomb:

  1. Make sure your book is in good shape before submitting it. It should have a fair number of positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. If you’re having trouble getting anyone to post reviews, try sending out free copies to people on Goodreads or Library Thing who read a lot of books in your genre (i.e. private message them to see if they’re interested in reading/reviewing). Or you can do what I did and run a free giveaway through Kindle Select. My book was downloaded about 10,000 times and I netted about 10 reviews that way. The rest just trickled in over time.
  2. Have more than one book. I always planned to try BookBub at some point, but I wanted to wait until my second novel, A Death in Duck was released. I figured that if people read and liked A Murder in Mount Moriah, they might go on to buy the next book. I’d get double bang for my (many) bucks. So far, my hunch has proven to be true. In the weeks before the BB promo, I’d sold about 40 copies of A Death in Duck–I suspect mainly to my friends and relatives. Since the promotion, I’ve seen a steady uptick in sales. I’ve sold between 3-10 copies per day of that title.
  3. Enjoy the surge, but gird your writerly loins for the inevitable slide. On the day of the promotion, I sold 1,300 copies of my book. The next day, around 250. It’s been downhill from there. Now, one month post-promo, I’m selling about 6-12 books per day. Part of the reason is undoubtedly because my 99 cent sale ended. People like cheap e-books. But another part of it is that once you leave the Amazon bestseller lists, your book becomes unfindable once again. No one sees it unless they seek it out. So, all in all, I’m heartened that 6-12 people are seeking out my titles each day. I think it can only be word-of-mouth at this point, because I’m not in the charts or doing any active marketing at present.
  4. Accept that BookBub will not make you a zillionaire. I paid $650 for my slot on BookBub (mystery is the most expensive category, because it has the widest subscriber base). I reckon that $1,200 in sales over the past month are attributable directly to the promotion (i.e. that’s how many more books I sold compared to previous months). So, my profit was about $550. I’ve heard of cases where authors didn’t break even after paying for their promotions, but I’ve heard of cases where people make even more money than I did. It’s fun to sit alongside J.K. Rowling in the charts, but a one-day (or one-week) sales spike does not a literary zillionaire make. Yet.

Amazon, 650. Traditional Publishing, 0.

Since the beginning of January, I’ve made about $650 in royalties from my novel, A Murder in Mount Moriah. That’s a little over $100/month, on average, for the arithmetically challenged. While that’s not exactly “quit your day job” money, I’m proud of it. It represented hundreds of sales (at $2.99 or .99 cents each for the Kindle title, which represents the vast majority of purchases). This doesn’t, of course, include the many thousands (10,000+) of free downloads via Amazon marketing schemes. I’m hopeful that once I have two or three more titles in the Reverend Lindsay Harding series, my writing income stream will grow considerably and provide a little contribution toward my daughter’s college fund/bail money.

In addition to deriving satisfaction from gaining an audience from my book, I feel that this income bolsters my belief that I made the right choice by aligning myself with Little Spot for Stories. Little Spot is essentially a platform for self-publishing. The editor, Nicole Loughan, is herself a successful indie author whose “Saints” series became an Amazon bestseller. Nicole vets the books she publishes under her imprint and provides marketing advice. What she does not do is play the dysfunctional game that most literary agents and book publishers do.

Why do I call it a dysfunctional game? The best-selling indie writer Hillary Rettig explained this beautifully in her recent article about the current Amazon vs. Hachette standoff. She explains how, for her, me, and many others, there is no contest between Amazon and traditional publishing. Amazon has giving writers all the tools they need to reach audiences, and they compensate writers at a reasonable rate for their efforts. Writers have control of the quality of their work, and control over marketing decisions. Meanwhile, traditional publishing is, for a writer, frequently fraught with peril and disappointment.

Here’s my experience with the world of traditional publishing, as an illustration. I finished writing A Murder in Mount Moriah about three years ago. Hopeful little author that I was, I duly submitted query letters, using the wonderful website Query Tracker, to the major agents representing my genre (cozy mystery).  I was overjoyed when my very first letter, to a BIG TIME AGENT, yielded an immediate request for a full manuscript and a period of exclusivity. After months of nervous waiting, the BIG TIME AGENT came back with a “thanks, but no thanks.” My next round of letters (and I sent multiple this time, because that whole exclusivity thing is a load of bullocks), scored me my very own BIG TIME AGENT, someone with several titles on bestseller lists and an impressive client list. Now, this agent knows her stuff and has all the right (write?) connections. She was excited about my manuscript, and I was over the moon.

Then began another round of waiting. She sent the book to the Big 5 publishers (e.g. Penguin, Kensington, Minotaur, etc.). The responses, when they eventually came after many, many months, were positive, but no one wanted to take on the series. Here’s a snippet from one:

“I thought the writing was very strong and I greatly enjoyed Lindsay’s character-she has a wonderful voice for a protagonist-funny, down to earth, and instantly endearing. I had a few second reads and the overall feeling was that the hospital setting was just too difficult to make work for our line.”

I also had editors say it wasn’t “cute” enough, wasn’t “crafty” enough (lots of cozies involve baking, knitting, etc.), or that their marketing team couldn’t figure out how to “visually convey” hospital chaplaincy.

Ultimately, my agent strongly encouraged me to give up on the hospital chaplain book and write something grittier and more hard-boiled. I don’t blame her for giving up. Publishing is a business, and the sooner a writer understands that, the better. The problem is, though, that I don’t want to write about some latter-day Josef Mengele psycho killer who spends his days stroking a cruel-eyed Persian cat while plotting out the details of his next gruesome rape or murder. (He is, obviously, laughing maniacally all the while). I don’t want to describe how this killer then wove a macramé owl out of the intestines of his unfortunate victim and fed the victim’s toes, one by one, to the cat (who is also laughing maniacally all the while).

Self-publishing has given me the freedom to tell the stories that I want to tell, and to try to find an audience that wants to hear them.

All of this is not to say that I wouldn’t consider traditional publishing. I’d still love to do that. But self publishing on Amazon has given me a basis for negotiation. I don’t have to take any old offer that I get. If traditional publishing can score me better than $100/month, I’m all ears.