“It’s no longer an either/or world. It’s both and why the heck not?” — James Scott Bell
You are a prolific writer and have been published by various major publishing houses, such as Simon & Schuster, Algonquin, and Random House. . . . Although you write in various genres (with the maritime world being the overarching theme), such as mystery, biography, and maritime history, let’s focus on your journey from mainstream to Indie publishing through your historical novel, A Love of Adventure (previously Abigail).
Abigail was first published in 1988 by Random House, and then in paperback by Mandarin and Bantam. How did your original publisher find you?
As so often happens, it was a case of who-knows-whom. The novel was written in the middle of a burst of passion for the stories of whaling captains’ seafaring wives and daughters, and read by an interested friend with publishing contacts in London. He passed the manuscript to a friend there, who handed it on to a professional reader, who loved the book so much that she harried him into giving it to an agent. From there, it went to the publishing director of Macmillan, who thought it was “a smashing book,” and also to another agent in New York, who handed it on to a good friend of hers, who was a senior editor for Random House.
As you can imagine, it was a very exciting time. Suddenly, out of the blue, two major houses had bought my seafaring adventure!
With so many contacts in the big publishing houses, why did you decide to self-publish A Love of Adventure (Abigail)?
The eBook phenomenon fascinates me; I truly believe that it is the most exciting development in publishing since the invention of print. I have blogged about it a great deal on my site “World of the Written Word,” and followed the fortunes of a large number of Indie authors, becoming more intrigued as the months go by. The idea of self-publishing an eBook as an experiment became irresistible, and Abigail, being my first novel, was the natural choice.
After looking at all the alternatives, I decided to do all the formatting myself, with just two conditions: that it would cost me absolutely nothing, and that I would share what I learned with the world, via my blog. This I did, ending up with seven “tutorials” that ranged from preparing the manuscript through designing the cover to the ePublishing process. These garnered so much interest that I created a dedicated blog, “KindlePublishingHints,” and transferred the tutorials, in descending order, onto this. It pleases me greatly that in the one month since this guide went up, over 200 people have used it to create their own books.
And why choose to publish as an e-book instead of in print?
I have been sent many self-published print books for comment or review over the years, and have often been dismayed at their quality. Print-on-demand seems to be particularly bad, in this respect. The alternative of having proper print-runs means the problem of storage—one author told me that she ended up storing unsold stock in the crawl space between the floor of her bedroom and the ceiling of the lounge below!
And I truly believe that eBooks are the popular reading of the future.
How much input on title or cover design did you have at the big houses (compared to the freedom of self-publishing)? When searching on amazon.com, I came upon a rather racy mass market paperback cover from 1989—would you classify your novel as romance? Do you think it was marketed to the correct audience?
Having control over the title, cover, and general design is a huge incentive for self-publishing. I was never happy with having a girl’s name as the title, as it limited the audience to women, and I knew from male readers that it was a book that appealed to men as well, particularly because of the whaling and seafaring scenes. So I certainly don’t believe that it was directed to the correct audience.
And the jacket designs! I was given no say in these at all, and none of them, in my opinion, reflected the thrust of the story. As for the Bantam paperback, you should have heard my shriek when I opened the carton! Later, when the Mandarin paperback came out, a newspaper featured both covers, side by side. The Mandarin version was sedate in the extreme, being a rather plain girl at the ship’s wheel, while the Bantam one (which features a bosomy female in Regency frills being ravished by a muscle-bound male) was captioned “Abigail and her shirtless friend.”
Well, it really was rather funny, I suppose. But it was a particular pleasure to design the cover I had wanted all along for the eBook: a ship disappearing into a spectacular sunset.
It seems that you straddle two worlds at the same time: that of the mainstream and that of the Indie. Can you compare and contrast the two “worlds”? What is it like being on both sides of the fence? Do mainstream publishers give you a hard time about publishing an Indie e-book? Do you feel as though you don’t fit in with Indie authors?
I’m rather used to straddling two worlds, being a maritime historian as well as a novelist. However, you are right, because there is a huge contrast between traditional and Indie publishing. There is nothing like working with an editor who loves your book, but wants to make it even better. Not only do you have a sense of direction, but it is confidence-building, as well.
But it only lasts until the book goes into production; while your editor keeps an eye on the process, and is available for answering questions, he or she has moved on to other authors and other books, so that the production process becomes more and more impersonal. When the book finally comes out (and remember that this is many months later), you are handed over to a publicist, but this is a finite situation, too. Authors are strongly encouraged to do their own marketing, and before the month is out, they are completely on their own.
I enjoyed the sense of power and independence that ePublishing A Love of Adventure gave me, but had the advantage of a professionally edited book to work from, plus the confidence given by years of experience. I notice that a lot of the Indie authors who contact me feel uncertain about their self-editing skills, no matter how many writing classes they have attended, and many of them go on to say that they have hired an editor—which is a very good move, I think.
And you are right again—I do feel a closer connection with authors who are self-publishing after being traditionally published, than I do with newbie Indie writers.
I still haven’t found out what my mainstream publishers think of this experiment in self-publishing, but am very conscious of their possible reaction. For instance, it makes pricing the books rather tricky. I am currently writing a fifth Wiki Coffin mystery, to follow the series of four that were published by Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press, but feel it is probably a good idea to wait until they bring out the first four as eBooks, so that I don’t underprice them by too much.
What are your thoughts about the quality of Indie books right now and how has the quality changed since you first began your SP project?
As I mentioned before, I found the first self-published print books disappointing, but those that have arrived on my desk more recently have certainly improved. I think this might be a result of Indie publishing becoming respectable. More established authors are going for the experiment, which raises the quality, so that newbie writers have good examples to follow.
Likewise, the formatting of self-published eBooks has certainly improved. I noticed that in the publishing guides put out by Kindle, the need for thorough proofreading is constantly stressed; as they say, having a lot of typos can mean three stars instead of a five-star review.
Can you give readers a sense of what your process of self-publishing was like? What were the advantages and the pitfalls?
My best answer to this is to recommend the running blog I wrote while I was going through the process, at www.kindlepublishinghints.blogspot.com It was an intensive, deeply engaging experience. And, what’s more, it was fun!
If you could offer aspiring SP authors the three most important lessons you learned while self-publishing, what would they be?
Proofread, proofread, and then proof again. And get your formatting right. It’s the only way you are going to end up with a professional-looking result.
Choose a jacket design that looks good in thumbnail—make it eye-catching but plain rather than fussy. It’s your major marketing device.
Let the world know what you’re doing, through social media such facebook, facebook groups, and twitter. Facebook is particularly good, as you connect with people who are doing the same thing, and who have great feedback to offer.
Finally, thank you very much indeed for posing such pertinent questions, and giving me the opportunity to share what I learned while ePublishing A Love of Adventure.
Joan’s writing has been inspiring me for years. I appreciate this interview and her comments about self-publishing. AND the link to her very useful tutorial!
Thank you for this thoughtful and illuminating interview. I’m a great fan of Joan’s writing, and am enjoying her account of her journey into self-publishing.