Ergo, this month I thought we might talk to an alumni member who’s taking a walk on the wild side. Get some insight into how it’s looking over there in the land of self-publishing. Score the skinny on how it all goes down. I’m dead curious about how the whole process works and I bet some of you are too.
I first met Catherine Lee on a 2008 Varuna Professional Development Residency, undertaken with long-time Creative Director Peter Bishop. At the time, Catherine was the least experienced writer in our group, and hadn’t yet finished the first draft of her manuscript. But she’d made a killer start, in more ways than one: she had a great idea for a crime novel, and she had an equally enticing title. Both stuck.
Fast-forward five years, almost to the day. After strong interest from a renowned literary agency and a Varuna crime-writing residency with Marele Day along the way, Catherine ultimately decided to go indie: Dark Heart debuted in August as an e-book, available on Kindle and Amazon. The novel explores cellular memory, posing the tantalising question I’ve been unable to shake all this time: does the heart remember?
It’s an intriguing notion, but roll it into crime fiction and suddenly the idea becomes potentially chilling. Whose heart? And what terrible secrets does it know?
So without further ado, please welcome indie e-author Catherine Lee to the alumni interview suite.
DJ: Catherine, I have a mortal fear of inadvertently giving away the entire plot when discussing crime novels/thrillers, so please tell us about Dark Heart without spoiling it for everyone.
CL: Dark Heart is a serial killer crime novel with a difference: the killer is dead. His last victim is still missing, and it’s up to Detective Sergeant Charlie Cooper and his new partner to find her before it’s too late. Meanwhile, Eva Matthews wants to get on with her life after finally undergoing the heart transplant she’s waited two years for. It’s not long, however, before Eva finds out that the new heart keeping her alive belonged to the killer. The nightmares she’s had since the transplant now take on new meaning - is the missing woman reaching out to her?
Dark Heart is a race-against-time thriller, but it’s also an exploration of cellular memory - the idea that transplanted organs can bring with them the memories of the donor. And of course there are plenty of twists to keep those pages turning.
DJ: As someone with a very low threshold for violence (read none), I’m intrigued to hear what and who inspires your characters; to what extent do you research real crimes looking for potential material?
CL: I keep my eyes open all the time for material, as I’m sure most writers do. You never know when that little gem of an idea is going to strike, and you also never know what will trigger it. For me, characters tend to evolve as I write the first couple of drafts. During this time particularly I’m always on the lookout for snippets, little things that real people say or do that can be just what’s missing from my character.
As far as real crimes, they definitely interest me, but I don’t know if they’ve influenced any of my bad guys so far. In the first draft of Dark Heart my serial killer was so cliched, he could have been lifted straight from an episode of ‘Criminal Minds’. I had to write this, of course, in order to see what I was doing wrong.
The final version is so pared back that there really is only the legend of what he’s done, rather than any actual gruesome details. I wanted to create suspense, the sense in the reader that he was a really nasty piece of work, without actually having any overly violent scenes. Of course, it helps that I killed him off in the first chapter.
DJ: I have this half comic image of you in my mind in which you’ve just thought of something really sick to unleash on one of your characters, and you’re thrilled to bits with it, having a real “Eureka!” moment...is it ever actually like that? Is there an element of excitement or satisfaction in hitting upon the perfect violent crime for your fiction? And if there is, do you ever, you know, worry about that?!
CL: Again, I wouldn’t say that any of my work so far is particularly violent. I prefer to create the sense of evil, rather than describe the evil doings of nasty characters. Having said that, I’ve totally had those “Eureka!” moments, but they’ve been more to do with solving particular plot problems than working out how to murder my next victim. It’s wonderful when it happens; a problem can plague me for days or weeks, and then all of a sudden the answer just seems to present itself out of nowhere. Of course, it usually happens in the shower, the one place where I have no chance of writing it down.
DJ: Tell us about your studies and the extent to which they’re assisting your crime writing.
CL: A few years ago I was going through a bit of a rough patch, as we all do, and I needed something new to focus on. I discovered that there were so many university degrees available to study online nowadays, including a Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, which I promptly enrolled myself in. It’s so different from the first time I studied at uni, over twenty years ago. All the material is available online, including recordings of lectures, so you study at your own pace but within a thirteen-week structure, with assignments due and an exam at the end. I’ve found it an excellent way to study, and my writing has undoubtedly improved because of it.
Some of the subjects have a direct impact on my work, for example I have a much greater understanding of how the justice system works, particularly how laws are made and enforced, and how the court system works.
Other subjects influence my characters to some degree. The one I just finished was Psychology of Crime, and it looked at all the different psychological theories of why individuals commit crime. Being theory-based I found it hard going, but at the same time it really got me thinking about why criminals do the things they do. I’m sure that will carry over to my fiction, whether I’m aware of it or not.
DJ: Let’s talk a little about your reading tastes: to what extent are you a serial crime fiction reader?
CL: I absolutely love crime fiction, of course. I’m a sucker for a page-turner. When I set out to write Dark Heart, I wanted to create a fast-paced, page-turning kind of read, because that’s the type of story I enjoy so much. But that’s not to say I don’t appreciate other genres. One of my favourite books of the last decade is Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Books. That was brilliant and a total page-turner for me.
At the moment I’m working my way through the five novels shortlisted for this year’s Ned Kelly Best Fiction award, but I’m also reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. And then of course there are criminology textbooks for my degree.
DJ: Who are some of your favourite crime writers and why?
CL: This is always a difficult question to answer; there are so many good ones out there. I love the twists that Jeffrey Deaver manages to pull off; I love the action of Lee Child’s Reacher books, and I love the characters that Michael Robotham creates. Oh, and Val McDermid’s Tony Hill series: those books always keep me turning pages well into the early hours.
DJ: The process you’ve gone through publishing Dark Heart as an e-book fascinates me; how and why did you start down that road?
CL: I think it’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for a few years now. I started writing Dark Heart over five years ago, and sure, back then I had dreams of walking into a bookstore and seeing my book on the shelves with all the big names of crime fiction. But as I got further along, self-publishing seemed to go from strength to strength. I’ve done a fair bit of research over the last year, and it really is quite a different beast from the times when authors paid a lot of money to have a vanity press print thousands of copies which they probably still have in the back of the garage somewhere. It’s just not like that anymore.
I sent a sample of Dark Heart to one agent, because I wanted to have a go at the traditional publishing method, and because I felt that a rejection letter was a rite of passage and I wanted mine. That one agent took five months of deliberation before I finally got my rejection letter, and to me that’s just too bloody slow. The way I saw it, I could stick with that process and wait years to see my book in print, or I could do it myself in days. I wanted to get this book out into the world and move onto the next one, so for me it was no contest.
DJ: What surprised you most about the process?
CL: Like I said I did a lot of research, so I didn’t really come across many surprises, but I’d say the biggest point of difference self-publishing has is the ease and the speed of the process. So far I’ve only published on Amazon, but I’m told the others are not much more complicated. It’s not exactly a case of clicking a button and bam, you’re published, but it’s pretty close. I know a lot of people in the book industry curse Amazon, and perhaps their virtual monopoly could do with some reining in, but you have to say that they know their stuff. They have revolutionised publishing in the digital world, and personally I think the winners are readers and writers.
DJ: What will you do differently next time?
CL: Nothing, really. I’ve found an editor I love to work with, so I’ll be going with her rather than the two-stage process I used the first time, but other than that I’ll be doing exactly what I’m doing now.
DJ: How long did it take you to get Dark Heart to market, from the time you decided to self-publish to launch?
CL: I decided to self-publish about six months before I launched, but that’s not really an indication of how long it takes. I had editing to factor into that timeframe, and there were a bunch of reasons I chose the launch date I did. I could have done it a lot sooner, but I wanted to get some other things in place first.
Self-publishing means you control everything yourself, so once you’ve had your manuscript professionally edited, you need to have your file in a format that Amazon (or Smashwords, or wherever you’re uploading it) will accept. It’s not hard: there are plenty of people who’ve done it who have posted instructions on their blog. There are also programs that do it for you. For example, if you write in Scrivener (which I cannot recommend highly enough), you can compile your manuscript directly into an acceptable file format.
The other thing you have to do is get your cover design sorted, which is something you don’t want to do yourself, so you need to allow some time to find a graphic artist and go through the design process. Once you have those two things ready to go, the actual process of putting your finished product up for sale only takes a day or so. If you’re doing a print version, which you can do through Amazon’s CreateSpace, allow time for them to send you a proof copy.
DJ: Investment: please excuse my bluntness, but how much has it cost so far, getting the finished product up and running?
CL: By far the biggest investment is editing. We all know the value of a professional editor, and unfortunately Amazon is full of books by authors who just don’t get this basic concept. Self-publishing doesn’t mean putting out crap and hoping someone will buy it. It means taking responsibility for all the things a traditional publisher would have done, including editing.
For Dark Heart, I had a professional manuscript assessment done early on, plus I had some valuable feedback from fellow writers and a few early readers. All of this got my manuscript into pretty good shape structurally, then I finished it off with a copy edit by a professional who was recommended by a friend. It’s important to find an editor you can work with, and I was fortunate in that I have now made contact with a great editor and I’ll be using her to do both structural and copy edits in the future.
The other upfront cost is cover design. Unless you’re a graphic artist, you don’t want to attempt to do this yourself. It will look unprofessional. There are so many graphic designers out there who specialise in book covers, so you can get away with it quite cheaply. My cover design uses a stock photo, which the designer changed a bit using blurring and angles, with text over the top. It’s simple, but effective, and was very cheap. Depending on the design you are looking for, you can pay anywhere from $25 up into the hundreds. My designer said that romance covers are the easiest and cheapest for her to produce, and I’ve heard some of the fantasy ones with dragons and such can get quite pricey.
To answer your question, here’s the breakdown of costs for Dark Heart (as much as I can remember, anyway):
Manuscript assessment $500
Copy edit $550
Cover design $45
Print version cover design $45
Proof copy $30
As I said, I’ll be going with the same editor for both structural and copy edits for my next book, and I expect my editing costs to be somewhere around $1500. From what I’ve read, anywhere between $1000 and $2000 is what you should expect to pay for good, professional editing services; it is by far the biggest investment you’ll make.
DJ: What were some of the major challenges you overcame along the way?
CL: I wouldn’t say there were any major challenges to do with the self-publishing process, but there were definitely writing challenges. Self-belief was probably the main one for me. I knew I had a good story, but it took a long time to convince myself that I was able to write it, and do it justice.
DJ: Self-publishing has a long but often maligned history; why do you believe it’s the right option for you?
CL: I’m in this for the long haul. My ultimate goal is to make a living as a writer, and I believe self-publishing is the best way for me to do this. If I had to put myself in a category I’d say I have the potential to be a strong, mid-list genre author. I want to write fast-paced thrillers that readers can’t put down and I want to write a lot of them. But major publishers just aren’t taking chances on people like me. If it’s not going to be a blockbuster, they’re not interested. That [attitude] was confirmed for me by the response I received from the agency I sent Dark Heart to, which was along the lines of, “It’s a great read, but the market is so tight in that category we don’t think we can sell it.”
If I stuck with traditional publishing and was lucky enough to find someone willing to give me a go, it would probably be a least two years before Dark Heart found its way onto bookshelves. As a self-published author, I can publish at my own pace. If I work hard enough, I could have four or five titles out by then. That’s the key: it’s all up to me. If my work is good enough, and if I can get enough people to take a look at it, at some point that coveted snowball effect will take over and I will achieve my goal of making a solid living as a writer. I feel that I owe it to myself to give it everything I’ve got, and self-publishing allows me to be in control of my future to a much greater extent than if I put my fate in the hands of a publisher.
Self-publishing is not for everyone. It seems to be working very well for genre authors, with romance writers way out in front. It’s also quite a good option for instructional non-fiction, such as self-help and how-to books. Self-publishing takes a lot of work, so if you’re the type of author who just wants to write and wants nothing to do with the publishing and marketing side of things, then maybe it’s not for you. But if you like the idea of being in control of your work and your future, then maybe give it some thought. No one is more dedicated to making your writing career a success than you are.
DJ: Editorial rigour: it’s so important. I know you’re a perfectionist by nature (Happy Birthday for the 5th, fellow Virgo!), so tell us more about those various checks the MS went through along the way.
CL: Good editing is absolutely one of the most important aspects of good fiction. Let me go back a step, though. I know all writers are different, but for me, part of my perfectionist nature means I’m most definitely a planner. I was about 30,000 words into my first draft of Dark Heart when I realised it was going nowhere. I needed a plan.
I spent the next three months writing up a detailed excel spreadsheet, plotting out every chapter, which characters were involved where, timelines: everything. Once I’d done that, I was finally ready to have another go at writing a draft, and this time the words just flowed out of me.
My second draft focused on the structure, filling in plot holes and making sure everything worked. Then I looked at the characters in the third draft, strengthening the weaklings and putting some others in their place. Only then was I ready to give it out to a couple of trusted readers. Once I had their feedback, there were more revisions before I sent it for a professional manuscript assessment, which I mentioned earlier.
After the manuscript assessment I made more changes then sent it to some more trusted readers, this time choosing people who were not writers themselves. With a small amount of direction, avid readers can give you invaluable feedback. After that round I felt it was ready for a copy edit, which I also discussed above. I used a professional; she was very thorough and not afraid to tell me what she thought of the book, which is why I’ve chosen to use her for both structural and copy edits in the future.
DJ: What about the crime-writing residency you undertook at Varuna – how did that assist the evolution of your manuscript? How significant a role has Varuna played in your overall development?
CL: To be blunt about it, I would have given up writing years ago if it weren’t for Varuna. I can’t remember how I found that magical place, but my goodness I’m so glad I did. Varuna is where the Darklings met, and – like you, Di – I was fortunate enough to be a part of that group. I was at the beginning of my writing journey when I went to Varuna the first time. Having a group of fellow writers who understood what I was trying to do was incredibly important. I’m convinced that if I’d struggled on with no support I would have given up.
A couple of years after that first residency, I was fortunate enough to win a place at Crime Week, where I got to meet some more lovely writers and spend a week receiving writing advice and mentoring from Marele Day.
Marele was brilliant. I came away from that week with some great ideas to really lift my manuscript to the next level. I can’t thank Varuna enough for helping me to get where I am now.
DJ: As much as dramatic scenes of revolution are riveting – and there’s no going back, the Internet has changed the world – my dreamscape remains hopelessly attached to traditional publishing. I believe in the value of external assessment, for one. Authors are rarely accurate judges of their own work and editors, agents and publishers have expertise I trust both as a reader and writer. Not to mention as a consumer: I’d much rather buy one good hard- or paperback than 20 inferior self-published ones. My sense that bad books are bloating the e-publishing market is a serious mental block for me when well-meaning friends suggest I self-publish. What are your thoughts on this common anxiety among writers about the potential damage to their credibility?
CL: I get it, I really do. It’s true, unfortunately – there is a lot of crap out there. The beauty of self-publishing is that anyone can do it. The downside to self-publishing is that anyone can do it. But the thing is, this is a whole new world and the industry is still figuring itself out. There will always be people who will jump onto the next big thing, thinking it is the answer to their prayers, that it is their next get-rich-quick scheme. So you’ll get people who will pump out rubbish and put it up there thinking they are going to make a fortune. They won’t.
Readers aren’t stupid, and word of mouth is still the biggest thing that sells books. When you buy an e-book, the first thing you look at is the cover. If that attracts you, you read the description. If you’re still interested, you can check out the reviews other people have written. Let me tell you, Amazon reviewers will come down hard on poorly written or badly edited books. They’ll also acknowledge good writing. If the reviews aren’t enough to make up your mind for you, you can read a sample of the book. You’ll get at least enough pages to be able to tell if it’s something you want to read or not. So, really, if you buy a dud, you haven’t done your research.
The writers who are putting out crap will soon realise that it’s not the golden ticket they were expecting, and they won’t continue. Then there will be the writers who’ve written one book, put their heart and soul into it, and self-published it because they want their family and friends to be able to read it. There’s nothing wrong with that and I love that it’s now an inexpensive option for those writers.
I firmly believe that the writers who are committed to their work, who put out a quality product and are engaging and honest with their readers, and, most importantly, are there for the long-term, those are the writers who will thrive as self-published authors. Organic growth and word of mouth works, eventually.
DJ: I recently read a post on Tales from the Reading Room, the popular literary salon blog by UK academic Victoria Best, about a vetting site for e-books called Awesome Indies that reviews e-books and showcases the best in self-publishing. An overdue initiative and great to see; have you started participating in this sort of thing? How do you feel about entering that whole world of being reviewed and rated and so on?
CL: It’s definitely on my list of things to do. I think Awesome Indies is a great site. The big problem for readers [when it comes to] e-books is discoverability. Besides looking at the top search results, how do you find your next great read? It’s not as easy as walking into a bookstore anymore. And yes, how do you address that quality issue and sort the good from the bad? Sites such as Awesome Indies will continue to grow in popularity. It’s one of the reasons I’m confident that dedicated and hard-working indie authors will find their place in this new publishing landscape.
As for being reviewed and rated, I’m quite excited about it. It’s wonderful to hear what people think of something you’ve put so much effort into. At first it’s family and friends, of course, those people who’ve been pestering you with the, “When do I get to read it?” questions for the last couple of years. I’ve been blessed with phone calls, texts, emails, Facebook messages: you name it, people are finding a way to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. It’s a fantastic feeling, like finally they can see that I have been spending all this time on something worthwhile.
But of course, while the opinions of loved ones are special, it’s the opinions of those who don’t know me at all that count for so much when I’m trying to make it as a successful author. I’ve had a couple of reviewers who are unknown to me rate and comment on Dark Heart on Amazon, which is very exciting. I’ve also approached a couple of professional reviewers. Just as publishers send out Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) for review, self-publishers can contact Amazon and blog reviewers, or reviewers on sites such as Goodreads, and ask for an honest review in return for a free copy. There are many respected reviewers out there; you just have to ask nicely. One of the people I approached has already posted her review on Amazon, which was very positive and also gave me some valuable feedback, which I’ll take on board for the next novel. The other is a blog reviewer who has added Dark Heart to her “to be read” (TBR) pile, so I’m looking forward to hearing her thoughts.
As time goes on and more people discover and read my work, I will expect to get more reviews from the general reading public. Some of these will be good, some may not be, but that’s fine. You can’t expect that everyone will love your work. Even the best of the bestsellers never please everybody. I think it’s just important to have confidence in yourself and your books, and accept that everyone has an opinion. Most of the time there will be something positive you can take away from anyone who’s made an effort to read and comment on your work.
DJ: How likely do you feel it is that you’ll continue self-publishing? How would you feel about going down the agent/publisher route with future manuscripts?
CL: I’m committed to self-publishing for the immediate future, at least with my next two titles, but I’m certainly open to all options. Many self-published authors are being ‘discovered’ by publishing houses; some are choosing to sign with them, some are not. And some are signing print-only deals, retaining their e-book rights and getting the best of both worlds. Then there are the ‘hybrid’ authors, self-publishing some of their titles while partnering with a traditional publisher for others. It really is an exciting time for authors. If an offer were to come my way in the future I’d most definitely consider it, but my decision will be based on what’s best for my career, not the kudos of having my name on a bookshelf.
DJ: What happens now Dark Heart is available? How does it all work and how do you plan to market the novel and find its potential readers? How well is social media serving you as a marketing tool?
CL: Part of doing it all yourself is the marketing side of things, and let me tell you: it’s a big part. But, as I said, no one is more invested in your book than you are. All authors are expected to do some marketing these days, traditionally published as well as self-published. It’s like anything: you get out of it what you put into it.
Personally, I don’t plan on putting a great deal of effort into marketing until I have my third title published. My focus now is having the second book, Dark Past, out early next year, and the third, which is yet to be titled, published by Christmas next year. That’s a big ask, but I know I can do it. Then I will develop a marketing plan and put it into action, perhaps spending some money on advertising in conjunction with a discount or free offer. There are many options available; some seem to work better than others, and some may work now but may be ineffective in a few months’ time. That’s where your research comes in: you really have to stay in touch with the industry and listen to other writers. Self-published authors are an extremely friendly and open bunch. They tend to share information on what works and what doesn’t, providing tips for new authors so you don’t make the same mistakes. It’s a very welcoming and sharing community, very supportive.
I plan to wait until I have my third book published because marketing as a self-published author requires a huge investment of time and, depending on how you do it, cost. If I were to do that now, with only one book available, I may find a lot of readers, but without a second and third book I will quickly lose them. There’s nothing more disappointing as a reader than finding a new author you love, only to find out they don’t have any other titles for you to read. Three books, however, and you have a much greater chance of that reader remembering your name. Also, in just over a year’s time, not only will I have three titles, I will have almost two years’ worth of blog posts and (hopefully) a reasonably significant presence on social media sites. I’ll be an established author, rather than a newbie with one book and not a whole lot else. That’s the time to put the effort into finding new readers and really getting that snowball rolling.
I think social media is a very effective tool for communicating with readers, but you have to be very careful. Many authors unfortunately try to use traditional marketing methods on social media. What works in traditional advertising media such as television, radio and print, namely the “in-your-face” type of push, doesn’t work in social media. Constantly tweet or post about your book, why your followers should buy it, excerpts from your book, excerpts from reviews about your book, etcetera, and you will turn everyone against you. It just doesn’t work.
Social media is exactly what it says: social. Engage with other people, ask questions, have conversations. That’s how to make social media work for you. I don’t think you can use it to specifically sell books. I think readers have to find you another way, then social media can be the place where they engage with you and really become a fan. That’s not to say that you’ll never sell books through sites like Facebook and Twitter. The more you engage with people in these spaces, the greater the chances someone will like what you say and investigate you further. If you make it easy enough for them to find your books, people who connect with you on social media will take that next step.
At this stage my approach to social media has been organic growth. I use Twitter to connect with people who have similar interests to me. I use Facebook to post updates on my writing progress, or anything else that I think is relevant and that potential readers might be interested in. About two months before I published Dark Heart, I started a blog. I post weekly, and try to stick to issues surrounding criminology and crime fiction.
I’m still finding my feet in all three of these arenas, as I’m not what you would call comfortable in the public domain yet. But you have to be if you want to succeed as an author, and I’m actually finding it a lot more enjoyable than I anticipated. One week I had no idea what I wanted to blog about, but a random newspaper article gave me an idea. That post ended up as one of my most popular so far and attracted a comment from a sports writer in Atlanta. To think that someone on the other side of the world even read my post, let alone liked it enough to make a comment, well, that made my day.
DJ: Dark Heart is the first in a planned series of ‘Cooper and Quinn’ novels – what can you tell us about the next instalment, Dark Past?
CL: Dark Past begins with the murder of a woman who has been tracing her ancestry. Her sister, Beth, hires a researcher to finish the family tree, but the researcher is also murdered. Beth realises there is a secret in her family’s past, a secret someone is willing to kill to protect.
Where Dark Heart dealt with the complex phenomenon of cellular memory, Dark Past will delve into the world of genetics.
Thank you so much, Di, for letting me be a part of the Varuna monthly feature. I’ve long been a fan of your work, as you know, so I feel very honoured to be here. If anyone has any questions about the self-publishing process, I’m only too happy to attempt to answer them.
DJ: Aw, thanks, Catherine – that’s very sweet! And thank you for playing; it’s been so interesting watching from the sidelines as your self-publishing strategy has evolved. Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned. I think there’s a lot of food for thought for alumni and others who visit us here at Varuna Alumni News.
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