I would like to welcome, B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Lorraine Devon Wilke today to talk about her Self-publishing experiences, what to expect, the challenges and the do’s and don’ts with this growing industry. This is the first post on the wonderful series indieBRAG and Layered Pages is conducting. Lorraine started early as a creative hyphenate. First, there was music and theater, next came rock & roll, then a leap into film when a feature she co-wrote (To Cross the Rubicon) was produced by a Seattle film company, opening doors in a variety of creative directions.
In the years following, she wrote for and performed on theater stages, developed her photography skills, and accrued a library of well-received feature screenplays (The Theory of Almost Everything was a top finalist in the 2012 Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest; A Minor Rebellion a Quarter Finalist in that same event in 2014). She kept her hand in music throughout – songwriting, recording, performing – leading to the fruition of a longtime goal to record an original album (Somewhere On the Way). Accomplished in collaboration with songwriting/producing partner, Rick M. Hirsch, the album garnered stellar reviews and can be found at CDBaby and iTunes (one tune from the collection is even featured in the epilogue of After the Sucker Punch). She continues with music whenever she can (which, she maintains, is never, ever, enough!).
Lorraine, when did you decide you were going to self-publish?
I spent a lot of time researching the various options and originally decided that, for me, traditional publishing was the way to go. Having been an indie artist as a singer/songwriter, a screenwriter, and a photographer, I was well-versed on the challenges of “doin’ for yourself,” particularly in the arena of marketing and promotion, and REALLY wanted some help this go-around. I was also aware of the changing tides in the book publishing industry and understood that, even with a traditional deal, an artist is obligated to do a lot of their own legwork, but still… getting help seemed like a grand notion.
But wanting a publishing deal and getting one are two very different things! I jumped into the notorious “query process” with AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCH in 2010, continuing to polish and fine-tune the book throughout the long and arduous years of that quest, and in late 2013, when I decided the book was truly DONE and it was time to give it life, and still had not snagged a deal, I had to ponder other options. Ultimately, I reached a point where I no longer wanted to wait for permission to proceed, so to speak, and opted, in early 2014, to self-publish.
What has your experience been like along the way?
I was intimidated at the onset, feeling sort of “over my head” with the sheer logistics of getting the task accomplished, but with guidance from a few key people, as well as my own innate ability to be well organized and detail oriented, I soon discovered it wasn’t all that difficult. It was imperative to me that my edit was perfect, my cover was professional, and my formatting was flawless, so I took the necessary steps to make sure all that got done, and once I sorted out the step-by-step procedure of getting the book up at CreateSpace and Amazon, it was a fairly simple launch. And from there it was great fun getting the word out, promoting on all my social media, wrangling early readers to share their views on the page; just generally sending my “baby” out into the world after years of being a “stay-at-home book”! And certainly the discovery that readers were excited and moved by what I’d written was a profound moment for me. One never knows, does one? J Until you actually start hearing back from readers, particularly those to whom you have no connection, readers who are objectively commenting on what struck them, or what they liked, etc., you just never know how this creation of yours will impact others. Quite a milestone for any writer!
What are some of the challenges you have faced?
The most obvious challenge is, how do you market and promote YOUR book in the glut of hundreds of thousands of self-published titles that come out during a year? The sheer numbers of books that hit the market via Amazon and Smashwords and other indie sites is absolutely astonishing, and finding a way to stand out and be seen, enough to garner the attention and interest of readers, is quite the task.
I’m almost a year into promoting AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCH and, while it’s done very well in terms of garnering strong reviews, winning certain honors (including the fabulous BRAG Medallion!), getting picked for “best of” lists, etc., I’m still finding it a challenge to break out of the field in a more meaningful way. Conventional wisdom says “literary fiction”—as opposed to more buzzy genres like “paranormal romance,” “murder mysteries,” or “vampire/zombie” fare—is a more difficult sell and that might be true. We’ll see. As I continue to explore ways to get AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCH, as well as my new novel, HYSTERICAL LOVE, out there, I’m looking to crack the code on that one. Certainly any and all suggestions welcomed! The other, more systemic, challenges are the limitations and stigmas assigned to the entire demographic of “self-published book.” They are many and persistent, and their impact on indie authors is deeply felt. There are major book contests that will not accept submissions from self-published authors; higher-profile review sites, blogs, and publications that will not even consider self-published books; book stores won’t carry copies, events marginalize self-pubbers to the back room, and generalized thinking within the industry—that being self-published automatically categorizes one as “less”—promotes a prejudice that unfairly tarnishes a lot of really excellent, beautifully crafted, and utterly deserving books. I hope that changes over time, and with the impact of more and more self-published writers holding themselves to a higher standard, it should.
What have you learned in this industry?
Most notably, how to produce a book: how to craft a solid, page-turning narrative, how to access the right people and resources to edit, proof, format, and create a brilliant cover; basically, how to bring to fruition a product that can sit comfortably and deservedly on the shelf with any traditionally published book. Personally, I loved that educational process! I’ve also learned that there are many helpful, supportive, really generous people in the indie world, people who will go out of their way to push and promote the work of others they admire. That’s a remarkable thing, particularly in such a competitive and oversaturated market. I’ve met some amazing bloggers and fellow authors who are exemplary in that regard, and I have no end of appreciation for the efforts they’ve made on my behalf, as well as others. I’ve also met and read some incredible authors who are creating top-notch books that deserve all the accolades and attention they can get. And yet one cannot exist in the self-publishing industry without also feeling the cold-water-dip reality of how challenging it is to break out, in a meaningful way, in the midst of so much product, particularly when you’re marketing yourself. To be honest, that’s the puzzle at the moment and one I’m still sorting out!
What are the do’s and don’ts of self-publishing?
Do’s are simple: WRITE AND PRODUCE AN EXCELLENT BOOK. Of course, that’s very subjective isn’t it? And just as we’ve watched thousands of delusional “singers” over the years get miffed when Simon Cowell told them they couldn’t sing, so, too, are there those in every avenue of the arts who believe they’ve got a handle on a craft when they don’t. So, yes, there are many books out there that lack professional excellence, and since self-publishing is unfiltered and non-exclusionary, those books go out into the marketplace right along with the others…which is why the stigmas about self-publishing exist! But for those who are NOT delusional (which is, hopefully, the majority!), the main objective is to produce an excellent book, leaving no stone unturned in applying professional standards of narrative development, editing, proofing, formatting, cover design, and marketing. The Don’ts are equally as simple: don’t be delusional—about your abilities, your book, the marketplace, what you can expect from the marketplace, or what anyone owes you. Don’t cut corners: if you can’t afford professional editing, formatting, cover design, etc., you’re not ready to publish. Don’t chase after false accolades; review swaps have corrupted the process and if you think a hundred 5-star reviews from friends, family, and fellow writers who’ve been promised a quid pro quo are more valuable than a few authentic responses from objective readers, again, you’re not approaching this like a professional. If you think spending hours of time on Facebook debating “how to get started” is the best use of your time, you might want to reconsider your passion and see if there’s something else doesn’t spark more artistic urgency.
In a nutshell: approach the entire endeavor with professionalism, rigorous standards, eyes wide open, and a passion for the process. If you do, you should thoroughly enjoy the journey…and that alone can make the leap worth making!
What advice would you give to a writer who is considering the self-publishing route?
Beyond the above? BE REALISTIC. We’ve all read articles about the few self-published writers who’ve hit the jackpot: who wrote some fan fiction or a genre series that went viral and made them millions. We’ve read the articles promoting self-publishing in such glowing terms we are absolutely certain we cannot lose. We’ve watched videos, gone to workshops, attended seminars, heard self-publishing touted as the “way the industry is going,” with mantras about taking things into our own hands, bypassing the gatekeepers, doing it our way, and so on, and it all sounds incredibly exciting and DOABLE. Which it is. But…
The reality is that almost 450,000 self-published books came out last year and very, very few of them went viral or made millions. Most sold a few to family and friends and not much beyond. Some did marginally well for a bit, then died on the vine. Others only flew off the shelf when the authors gave them away or reduced the price to pennies. Turns out, self-publishing is much like gambling: we gamble believing we’ll win based on anecdotal evidence that some people win, so why not us? And indeed, why not?
But that rougher-edged supply/demand inequity can’t be ignored. So what’s the answer? Simply, BE REALISTIC. If, even knowing those odds, you are compelled to be a self-published author, embrace the realities of the market, leap with joy and enthusiasm, and again, start by WRITING AND PRODUCING THE BEST BOOK YOU POSSIBLY CAN. At the end of the day, your books are your legacy as an artist, and no matter what happens to them in the great, unpredictable marketplace, it behooves you to take pride in what you create, knowing that no matter what does or doesn’t happen commercially, you will have left a meaningful piece of your authentic, artistic self for your family, your loved ones, maybe even future readers. So no matter what, WRITE AND PRODUCE THE BEST BOOK YOU POSSIBLY CAN.
Then approach marketing and promotion like a total professional; realize you will need to spend money to get your book up at the better book sites, to buy promotional campaigns, to purchase advertising, to enter contests, to print books for events, readings, and signings; to send to reviewers and festivals. You can’t just do social media and leave it at that; social media is utterly inundated with book promotions these days and there is a certain deadening factor kicking in. People are becoming inured to the “read my book!” kind of promotions. So get creative; think of other things to say, other ways to feature your work. Share the work of authors you admire; be generous about writing authentic reviews of books you like, help promote others without an agenda, and you’ll realize how much your generosity is appreciated. And often reciprocated.
Be realistic… and keep writing.
What are the promotional techniques you use via social media and how much time a week do you spend promoting your work?
I do some kind of promotion of my work every single day, in one form or another. I write articles for my blogs, write guest articles, comment on the work of others; share blogs of other writers. As for social media, I engage in select conversations on Facebook (though I do not spend much time on that), and share articles, book links, commentary—as well as promotional alerts about my own books—on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, Digg, LinkedIn, Intagram, Pinterest, etc. I’m working with a publicity company for the launch of my new book, HYSTERICAL LOVE. That expense was something I felt necessary to give this second book of mine a bigger shot into the marketplace. Via their efforts, I’m doing radio/podcast interviews, guest posts, events, etc., with lots of media getting advance copies of the book, and hopefully the critical mass of all that will go a long way toward getting this book further out upon launch. We’ll see, but they’re a great group JKSCommunications and I like their style, so I am ever-optimistic!
Beyond that, I carry books in my car in case I run into people to whom I’d want to gift one, I always have postcards and business cards with me; I order “book cookies” (cookies with my book cover) for events, readings, book club discussions; I link my book sites on every piece of social media I have; I even use my photography (which I’ve used for all my book covers) as a way to promote my books. I look for every opportunity I can to graciously discuss and promote my work (emphasis on “graciously”). J
What are the different sites you use to promote your book?
Most importantly, I have my own website; very important for every writer. From there, visitors will find links to every other important site for my work. I also have a blog dedicated to my book publishing After the Sucker Punch ; again, with links to all other important sites. I also have a general blog with the same.
As for other sites: when I first published AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCH in May of 2014, I did research to see what book sites seemed to be the most active, with the most followers, in the arena of book marketing and promotion. While I did end up jumping onto a few that were ultimately ineffective, there are several I intend to continue working with: Laurence O’Bryan’s BooksGoSocial is very active and involved; I can’t say enough about his passion and creativity in promoting indie writers. Others I’m on that I’ve enjoyed are Independent Author Network, Alan Healey’s Indie Author News, World Lit Cafe, Indies Unlimited, and, of course, B.R.A.G. Medallion !
My books are up at Amazon, and, more currently, at Smashwords. I opted out of the Kindle Select program more recently, not wanting to limit where I could post my books. I’m also not convinced the Kindle Unlimited lending program is all that beneficial for writers; I did not see it increase actual sales of my books and, again, I did not want to be limited to only having my ebooks up at Amazon. We’ll see how all that goes in the coming year and as things continue to evolve with the marketplace.
Where do you see this industry in five to ten years?
That’s a good question… and one I’m not sure how to answer. I imagine it will continue to expand, as new authors jump on board in hopes of finding their road to publishing success. But I hope, as that happens, the marketplace adjusts in necessary ways to not only accommodate that expansion, but to offer authors more opportunities and exposure. I hope the book industry as a whole evolves past the stigmatizing of self-published authors in any way, but judges them, just as they do any author, based on their individual work. And conversely, I hope the authors who join the pool do so while raising the bar of what can be expected from self-published authors. As much as we hate those stigmas, they evolved out of a certain reality, the fact that too many books hit the marketplace that were not up-to-par, not well produced; not excellent. And self-published authors are the only ones who can systemically raise that bar, step it up, to demand the highest levels of professionalism and become our own gatekeepers, in a way, toward delivering the best possible work. Hopefully in five to ten years no one will be talking about sloppy editing, amateurish book covers, and poorly constructed stories in self-published books… because there won’t be any!
I also think it’s possible traditional publishers will figure out how to adapt. Meaning, much like the music industry—where indie artists exist along with sustaining record labels—traditional publishers will not only coexist, but will have made positive, constructive changes in response to what is being learned via the indie world, things like how to recognize and value less obvious work, how to better serve their authors, how to better collaborate in creating the actual books (covers, edit, title, etc.); how to more fairly share profits, pay more quickly, market more enthusiastically, etc., things that benefit both the company and the writer. If traditional companies continue to exist, grow, expand, and improve, that would be lovely; it would give writers viable options: the choice to realistically and successfully self-publish, or to reach out to make a deal with a publisher that could actually benefit them. Win/win. I’m all for it and would appreciate the choice.
If something can be improve upon in this industry, what do you think it should be?
I’ve probably covered this in my previous answers—certainly about how self-pubbers need to hold themselves to higher standards, how the industry needs to evolve past stereotypes, and how traditional publishers need to adjust for the changing times.
But one thing I still find confounding is how to get really good books, excellent books that aren’t necessarily the buzzy, virally, or trendy genres, more deserved attention, more readership. I’ve now read a number of top-notch literary fiction pieces that deserve serious numbers, reams of good reviews, and loads of fans, but can barely eek out a few sales per month. I know that’s also true in traditional publishing, and certainly there’s no accounting for the public’s taste, but, still… I’d like to see great literary fiction get recognized for its unique role in bringing stories and narratives written with profound thought and beauty into the greater marketplace. Frankly, I think it would be just stellar if vampires, zombies, and paranormal romance stepped aside a bit for some gorgeously written dramas about finding love, exploring emotional fragility, or deconstructing family life. You know, the kind of books I read… and write!
How long have you been an indie author?
I guess I’d have to say “forever,” since I’ve written my whole life and have never had a traditional publishing deal. More specifically, in terms of actually self-publishing my own work, since 2014. A short road so far, but one I’m enjoying, and intend will lead me right where I want to go: to publishing success as an author of compelling, funny, touching, and meaningful contemporary literature.
Thanks, Stephanie! I always enjoy sharing some perspective with you and your readers!
Lorraine Devon Wilke
Thank you, Loraine!