Genre: Psychological Suspense/Mystery
Publisher: Suspense Publishing
Thank you for your time in answering our questions about getting published. Let’s begin by having you explain to us why you decided to become an author and pen this book?
Sheila: I wanted to write mysteries almost since I started reading them at 8 years old. It wasn’t until my late forties that I started in earnest. I wrote one book, then another, and suddenly it was a series.
Is this your first book?
Sheila: Written Off is the seventh in my Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series. Before the first book, Poison Pen, I had two non-fiction works published about handwriting and handwriting analysis (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis and Handwriting of the Famous and Infamous).
With this particular book, how did you publish – traditional, small press, Indie, etc. – and why did you choose this method?
Sheila: For seven years, I tried to get my first mystery, Poison Pen, published by a major publishing house, finally giving up and making a deal with a small press, Capital Crime, in 2007. What a thrill it was when Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review and it was immediately picked up, along with the next three in the series, by an editor at Penguin’s Obsidian. While I was writing book 4, that wonderful editor left and was replaced by another, who declined to renew my contract. When my agent at the time told me that a new publisher would not want to pick up a series in the middle, I decided to self-publish a standalone where my series characters appeared in a smaller role. I got to explore a couple of themes that had always fascinated me, including amnesia. Eventually, I got my rights back from Penguin and switched all my titles over to Suspense, another small press (they publish Suspense Magazine).
Although I am grateful for having had the big house experience it wasn’t all sweetness and light. At Penguin I would get an email with the book cover graphic and a boilerplate note: “here’s your new cover, we hope you love it as much as we do.” And if I didn’t love it—oh well, “it’s too late to make changes. I appreciate working with a smaller press because I have input into my covers and title, the final say in the text, and I get paid far better. With a big publishing house, you might get 8%-10% of the cover price—if the book is a mass market paperback, that means about .65 cents/book and no negotiation (“We’re ‘Big Publishing House,’ take it or leave it.”) With a smaller house, you might get better than 50%. Certainly, there is more room to negotiate.
Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey? The pros and cons?
Sheila: I’m not the only one to call it a heartbreaking business, but if you’re a writer, you have to write. One of my good friends writes for fun. He doesn’t care how many books he sells, he just enjoys the whole process, and that’s great. But if you want to make book sales at least part of your income it takes a strong commitment, not only to writing the book, but to getting it published, whether you have a traditional publisher or you do it yourself. And then you have to market the book. Most publishing houses, especially the big ones, do little-to-almost-no marketing for midlist authors (there are some exceptions). Most of the money they bring in goes into promoting the big names. So, to succeed you must be prepared to put a significant amount of time, effort, and some money into publicizing your own work. It’s also extremely important to make sure that your work is ready for publication, which means working with an independent editor along the way. That’s an investment, not a cheap one, but unless you have the brilliance of Shakespeare or Hemingway or Sylvia Plath, it is vital to your success.
What lessons do you feel you learned about your particular publishing journey and about the publishing industry as a whole?
Sheila: You can probably make more money self-publishing or with a small publisher. A big house might pay an advance, but if they do, the amount will be what they expect to make back on your book. They usually pay 8-10% of the cover price in royalties on mass market paperback, which means you have to sell a lot of books to make back the advance. A small house is unlikely to pay an advance, but will offer a far higher percentage. And if you self-publish through Amazon’s CreateSpace and follow their rules, you’ll receive around 70%.
Very important advice: If you are lucky enough to get a deal with an agent and/or a publisher, do not sell your characters. Read the contract carefully and only license your characters for the specific book or books covered by that contract. That way, if the series takes off and becomes Harry Potter-sized and you want to change publishing houses or make a movie deal, you will be able to. If you don’t protect yourself, you may lose all creative control over those people you have created and love.
Would you recommend this method of publishing to other authors?
Sheila: I’m honored that I was first published by a big publisher, but having tried it all, my current preference is for going with a smaller house. The author has far more control over things like cover, title, and what goes inside the book. Having said that, I would like to note that, regardless of how I publish, I always hire an excellent independent editor to work with me before I send my manuscript off to the editor at my publisher. I credit her with much of my success.
What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring authors?
Sheila: Realize that publishing requires an investment of time and money, and commitment to the process. First, make sure you’ve done your homework and know how to tell your story well. That means paying attention to the small stuff like leaving out the adverbs whenever possible. Read and apply books on editing, such as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown.
Carefully research the different publishing platforms so that whichever way you go, you’ll know what you’re getting into. If you opt for a major publishing house, you’ll need a good agent, which is just as difficult as getting a publisher. Attend the conventions in your genre. Agents on panels expect to be pitched by attendees. That’s why they’re there.
Learn how to market yourself, whether that means hiring a publicist if you can afford it, or doing it yourself through social media, blog tours, and the various other ways you can communicate to the world who you are and what you have to offer.
Finally, understand that it’s probably going to be a lot harder than you expect, and don’t let that discourage you. If you’ve got a story to tell and you’ve honed your craft, tell your story. Here’s wishing you the best of luck!