For this week’s Aspiring Voices, I talk with the savvy and articulate Alexandra Lynwood about her experience self-publishing and the opportunities opening up for new authors. We also talk about getting in The Zone, the siren song of the Xbox, and what still draws crowds into bookstores.
Paul: So you recently self-published a short story called Forsaken. Can you talk a little bit about that process? What was it like, how did you go about it and what made you decide to self-publish?
Alexandra: Forsaken began as an afterthought after I had already started the first novel in the Masquerading at Midnight series. I had reached a point in my writing where I found myself asking a few questions about the setting. I realized quickly, when taking some notes, that I had an idea to introduce my world in a better fashion and subsequently improve the novel.
Self-publishing was a no brainer for me. I had done months upon months of research while writing, and realized that I had heard and read very little that was complimentary of the legacy publishing system. Instead I was reading horror story after horror story. I studied law in England, and found myself cringing at the tales of legal battles, conflicts, and traps publishers create for writers.
A number of publishers using non-compete clauses for newly signed writers was the final straw. To simplify the consequences of that: some writers were so eager to publish and receive ‘validation’ from a ‘credible’ source they were, in some cases, signing away their rights to author anything at all if their publisher disapproved.
As a writer who wants to tell her stories I found that completely unacceptable, and promptly looked into the self-publishing industry. Having gone through the—sometimes frustrating—experience I’m very glad I did. There’s a lot to be said for having full control of your work. I live and die as an author by my own hand, and that is liberating.
The process itself is as simple or as hard as you want to make it. There are a number of reputable companies out there that can hold your hand through the mechanics, or you can fly solo like I did. If you want to do it by yourself, you’ll need patience, perseverance, and a decent knowledge of computing—or the ability to learn quickly. You also need to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism and analytic skill.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Important words to remember when you self-publish. While there are many reputable companies involved in the industry, so too there are sharks and conmen. Anyone who suggests that self-publishing will lead to instant success or require no effort on your part, in exchange for their services, is lying to you.
This is a tough and competitive business. To place it in context for you, I spent the days prior to publication working my butt off to make sure the manuscript was correctly edited, formatted and uploaded.
Then comes the process of marketing the book and yourself. I don’t actually have days off, but I’m okay with that, I’m having a blast.
Hearing the feedback from people reading my story has been emotional, terrifying, and made it all worthwhile. Forsaken rose rapidly to the genre bestseller ranks on Amazon—something I could have only dreamed about months before.
Now I’m eager to finish my novel, the second book in the series. I’m in this for the long haul and couldn’t be happier.
Paul: Do you think traditional publishing is more in danger from self- and e-publishing on the creator side or on the consumer side? I mean for authors traditional publishing has this reputation of having just an incredibly high barrier to entry. And that can sometimes be fertile ground for drawing the unscrupulous who know that if a writer even sniffs a possible way over the wall, they are likely to discard caution and maybe even common sense. Maybe at one point they had no other recourse, but now there is an alternative.
Or do you think there is never going to be a lack of writers who want the prestige of being associated with a big publishing house and the tech that enables self-publishing really just impacts traditional publishing because it spreads the audience so thin?
Alexandra: Traditional publishing is in danger from itself. The current (and historical model) has become an anachronism. You only need to take a look at the sheer length of time it has taken most of the big publishers to provide backlists in ebook formats to realize how slowly the wheels turn in New York. We live in an incredibly fast-paced society, and it consumes and demands at an increasing rate.
Technology is a great leveler, and the massive behemoths can’t continue to lumber onwards in the same plodding, painful fashion. Technology isn’t spreading the audience thinly for them, if anything the number of people reading in the last few years has boomed. The lack of responsiveness to the market is what drives customers elsewhere.
The backlist issue is an example of it being destructive from both sides of the equation. Some of my all-time favorite authors have yet to be put into ebook format. We’re talking about some massive names in the industry here, not mid-listers. As a major consumer of the written word I find that ridiculous and inconvenient. As a writer, I am horrified to think of the money, prestige and new fans those authors are losing out on as a result.
Alternatively, there is a lot of dross out there on the market as a direct result of the democratization of publishing. Here’s the interesting thing though—what is dross to me, is someone else’s favorite new book and author. The beauty of the revolution is that both parties are now catered to.
Putting aside poorly edited publications for one moment, let’s take a look at the innovations we’ve been rewarded with.
There are some amazing writers out there who have been repeatedly ignored due a number of factors by the legacy system. If you were unlucky enough to write a cross genre book prior to the revolution, you were probably rejected instantaneously. Cross-genre is something publishers struggled with. It didn’t fit neatly into one marketing pigeon hole, so unless you were an ‘A list’ writer you wouldn’t be given the chance to publish it. The risk and the financial commitment for a publisher were considered to be too high.
Nowadays, I can open up my browser, type in a number of keywords, and find something that contains all the elements I want in my next book purchase. The technology has caused the industry to become customer driven, not publisher driven. Considering the customers are the ones who do the consuming, paying, and reviewing, I fail to see that as a bad thing. They also don’t charge you, the writer, 90% – 97% of the profit from your work, and expect to retain your rights for the next millennium.
Just like the introduction of the printed word, I think we’re going to see some major adjustments in both consumption of the written word, and its production process. What those changes will be, I don’t know, but the existing system is fundamentally broken.
Of course, the legacy system’s role as ‘gatekeepers’ is one of the issues that is hotly debated.
As I said, technology has democratized the entire publishing process. Internet forums all over the world are aflame with the raging debate going on in the writing world. Traditional publisher author versus self-published author versus hybrid author.
One side argues that the gatekeepers are a necessary faction to prevent the ‘pollution’ of literature, the second side is infuriated by the arrogance and elitism, and the third side sits prettily in the middle, smiling benevolently.
Customers are the ultimate gatekeepers as far as I am concerned. Their views are the only ones that really matter. After all, if you write something and seek to publish it, it follows that you want it to be read and enjoyed on some level.
Yet people persist in seeking validation from the institutions who are a business attempting to make money.
Let me repeat that, publishers want to make money. They will make decisions based on financial reasoning, not literary appreciation. How many times has an author been sent a rejection note saying, “While I liked/loved/adored this work, unfortunately it is not a good fit for…”
For the foreseeable future, those writers who believe in the gatekeeper model will simply entrench themselves further. The same is true of the self-publishers. Hybrid authors, playing both sides of the fence, appear to have the right idea.
My advice to self-publishers is to simply ignore the argument and get on with your work. People have a tendency to only listen to arguments that are relevant to the position they hold.
Find yourself a reputable critiquing workshop online, some beta readers, a good editor, and have a sound marketing strategy. Be in the race for the long run, not to make millions overnight. Cautiously listen to the people around you, walk away, think about things with a clear head, and then make any decisions or commitments.
Just because you can publish, doesn’t mean you should run into it with a blindfold on. The same is true for the traditional writers – I challenge you to put the ‘prestige’ to one side, and really read that contract. You might just be in for a shock.
Paul: I wanted to back up a bit and talk about that third faction you mentioned, neither elitist (traditional publishing) nor embracing democratization (all self-publishing/digital). Is that where the hybrid author enters the picture? What does this kind of approach look like to an unproven author trying to build a reader base?
Alexandra: Hybrid authors seem to have the best of both worlds, and none of the disadvantages right now. Readers who are wary of purchasing self-published books are less likely to be so with someone who has also traditionally published. The hybrid author has gained a sense of legitimacy, and retains that when they branch out.
Of course, the process of becoming traditionally published is still a long and arduous task in most cases. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Due to the massive upheaval caused by self-publication, legacy publishers are now actively seeking out promising talent who have chosen to bypass them. If you’re already successfully, or starting to show signs of future success, they are just as likely to approach you nowadays. Some publishing houses and imprints are more proactive about it than others. Not surprisingly, Amazon’s new publishing imprints seem to be leading the charge.
The lessons we can take from the hybrid author are ones that any self-respecting indie author should be executing anyway. Write well, work hard, and the rest will follow. As the saying goes: success breeds success. It doesn’t matter how you become a hybrid author, just becoming one—even if it’s just for one or two books—is worth considering. Attitudes are changing, but until the tide has completely turned, gritting your teeth and accepting a book as a loss leader (or lower than usual income generator) is a legitimate strategy.
Paul: A lot of the advocates for the traditional publishing route seem to suggest one of their primary benefits to authors is in the realm of publicity and the ability to reach a broader audience. Is that a benefit that has been undercut by emergent technologies or alternative routes to publication, or is it simply expanding the reach beyond the significant but subset audience provided by online interactions? Or does the success breeding success formula work just as well in reverse?
Alexandra: From my understanding, the idea that legacy publishers are going to solve all the publicity woes or concerns of new authors, is a false one. I can only speak anecdotally, but author friends have confirmed having high expectations will lead to disappointment. If you’re lucky you may get a small budget and expert coaching on social media and marketing. Note the key aspect of that: you’re still expected to do the legwork. I’m sure that you’ve read some of the same things I have with regard to that.
Social media is clearly impacting the picture widely. Even publishers are turning their focus towards it, and pushing sales through outreach on twitter, facebook et al. A key question that keeps coming up is “Do you have a social media platform?” when writers are querying agents and publishers. They already expect you to be forming your fan base before publication.
If that’s the case, one has to wonder what they are bringing to the table other than physical distribution of books. Even that bastion is being eroded due to a) less bookstores, and b) the ability to create and distribute your own print books.
As for the last question, well… success breeding success as always been a truism. People like to bet on a sure thing or like to get involved in trends.
Paul: Are the dwindling number of bookstores innocent bystanders in this shift of the tides or are they a relic of the traditional model? Or do you think there is a way they can roll with the punches and find new relevance as self-publishing and digital or on-demand markets expand?
Alexandra: I’m not really the person to ask. As an observation, it seems like they need to quit bemoaning the situation and get with the times in some way, shape, or form.
Many people, including myself, still love print books. I’m just pickier about what I want to buy in print, and will probably spend a great deal more on a physical book that’s beautifully done now than I would have done before. Think coffee table-esque stunning glossy $50 – $200 tomes.
Paul: Let’s shift gears a little and talk about your process for writing. What is your work environment like? Do you have, for example, a favorite time of day to write or a place you go to get the creative juices flowing?
Alexandra: Ha, loaded question. I work from home so I’m lucky if I get consecutive hours writing without being disturbed. If it’s not the dog, it’s my husband needing something. The temptation to get distracted is pretty huge too. I’m working on my discipline as much as I can, but ya know sometimes the XBox 360 offers me candy to come and play.
I’m a tech nerd too, so I wander around with at least two pieces of hardware attached to a hand at any given point. This summer has been nice enough to head out to my local coffee shop, watch the world go by, and write my random thoughts and plots.
Mornings are the worst time for me, until I have enough coffee in me I don’t function well. Nights are when I am most productive, especially the early hours, but of course the payoff there is being tired the next day.
Paul: I’ve noticed with a lot of the creative people I know that those who are prone to distraction are often heavily overlapping on the Venn diagram with people who are searching for this sort of elusive zone where their creative output spikes for a few hours or days. Afterward, they find it hard to produce much of anything until that state is achieved again. Do you feel like that’s how you operate or are able to have a more steady average on a smoother curve?
Alexandra: I’d say that sums it up it nicely. For me it’s like a faucet that I can turn off and on, except I have to be in that comfort zone. When I reach it that’s great—I can throw out tens of thousands of words fast. When I’m outside of that optimal window, it’s firmly in the closed position.
There are ways around it, but that’s a slow process of relearning. Like I said, it takes discipline and some motivation.
I should add as a side note, my mother claims I have always worked like that. I would do my homework against her wishes at 1:00 am, or I would suddenly become talkative and have major brainwaves and ideas at that time.
Paul: How does getting into that hyper-productive mindset work with other elements of writing like editing, revising, planning, outlining, or do you find each discipline kind of draws from the same creative faucet?
Alexandra: It’s the same as writing. I do copious amounts of any of those things when I am in the zone. Otherwise it’s a struggle.
Paul: Have you always considered yourself a writer? What made you decide to start pursuing it seriously with an aim to publish?
Alexandra: I’ve always lived somewhat in my head, playing around with stories and scenarios. I never took the step of committing them to paper until I was laid low with a spine injury a few years ago.
As my ability to write developed, and I remained out of work due to injury and emigrating to marry, I picked up my pen (laptop) and started to play with those worlds and words in my head and realize them and their potential.
Publishing was a decision I made to push myself. I figured there might be a few people out there who would enjoy what I had to say, and it turns out I was correct. Forsaken has been very well received both in comments and sales. I even made it to number 23 of the hottest new releases for my genre on Amazon until [some] system glitches […]appeared[…]. I can’t believe it took me so long to actually get out there and enjoy myself!
Paul: That’s very inspiring. Okay, last one. Describe the best book you’ve read recently.
Alexandra: I had to think about this one, but I believe I’ve settled on Macrieve by Kresley Cole. I know I should probably be cerebral and mention something that is highbrow literary, but I’m happy with this pick.
While it’s a paranormal romance in her usual comedic and steamy style, Kresley Cole took on quite a difficult subject matter. She touched on the issue of male rape, a rare subject, especially given the genre. Don’t forget that a lot of romance is filled with Alpha males, and rape can somehow imply a lessening of manhood (or at least that’s an odd belief that does the rounds). I found it refreshing to see a boundary being pushed and existing stereotypes being challenged.
Born in London, England, Alexandra Lynwood has since spread her wings and lived out her own romance novel. Now based in Boston, she lives with her supportive and wonderful American husband of three years.
Alex hasn’t looked back since reading ‘Something Wonderful’ by Judith McNaught at the age of 14, so it’s no surprise she writes romance novels for a living. Her debut story, Forsaken is a Regency erotica that introduces a number of the characters that you’ll be seeing in the subsequent books of the Masquerading at Midnight series.