MILKSHAKE: One Writer’s Venture Into The Brave New World of Indie Publishing

Dear everyone,

It’s a sign of the times that every day now, when I open my email, there’s a query from a curious/ excited/ panicked writer about self-publishing.  What are my thoughts about it?  Given that I’ve gone the traditional route, both of my novels having been published by wonderful esteemed houses, I have no qualification to answer self-publishing questions. Total lack of experience never stops me from tendering an opinion, however.

These are scary times for writers.  As publishers wrestle with expanding to embrace digital publishing while trying to figure out what it means for the bottom line, a lot of supremely talented writers are falling through the cracks.  At the same time, with the dawn of the digital age, writers have more options than ever:  self-publishing, forming co-ops, promoting and supporting each other via social media, putting their books on Kindles & Nooks & apps. (Oh my!)

Yet as with any pioneering venture, there are dangers and questions.  In the olden days, if you self-published, it often meant the big agents and publishers wouldn’t take a chance on you.  Does self-publishing have a different aura and status now?  Is it a venture writers should consider *instead* of the traditional route rather than as a last resort? And–excuse me but you know you want to know–can you really make money at it?

While I was sounding off to fellow writers about all this, my dear friend Joanna Weiss, Boston Globe reporter and columnist, published her debut novel, MILKSHAKE, online.

Boston Globe reporter/ columnist and novelist Joanna Weiss, pictured here with her gorgeous children, Ava (L.) & Jesse (R.)

Joanna covers cultural matters for the Globe.  Who better to take this first brave step into the new frontier?

Joanna was kind enough to let me ask her questions. My interview with her below. Enjoy!

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MS. BLUM: Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel MILKSHAKE!

The fabulous and delicious MILKSHAKE, now available on Amazon

I love the book, which you were brave enough to let me read when it was still in progress.  And I’m AWED you’ve joined a literary pioneering movement by making MILKSHAKE available to readers in digital form as opposed to print.  What do we call this brave new venture, anyway? E-publishing?

MS. WEISS:  I really love the term “indie publishing” for these ventures – not just because it captures the independent spirit, but because it acknowledges how much collaboration and shared talent goes into any one of these “self-published” books.

MS. BLUM: That makes sense. I also like the idea that in an era when publishers seem to be erring toward tried-and-true blockbuster novels, there’s new room for independents that nourish and inspire us creatively. Like the indie film versions of books.  So, indie it is.  …Why did you choose to publish MILKSHAKE on Kindle instead of going the more traditional route? What were the primary factors in your decision?

MS. WEISS:  Thanks – this is an uncharacteristically brave thing for me to do, but it’s also exciting. I actually started out on a traditional path. I wrote a novel. I had an agent. But I also had terrible timing, as a debut novelist at a time when Borders was collapsing and the e-book revolution had begun. When my agent encountered resistance from the major publishing houses – which she believed had mostly to do with sales and marketing — she suggested that I launch it as an ebook. (My husband had been telling me to do this for months.) MILKSHAKE seemed an interesting fit for the digital space, because it’s about the absurdities of modern motherhood, and there’s a potential audience in the vibrant community of smart, funny mommy bloggers.

MS. BLUM:  Yes indeed, I love the mom bloggers, and I’m not even a mom–yet!  You have terrific credentials as a Boston Globe reporter, columnist, and culture maven.  Many journalists, when trying their hands at novels, go with traditional agents and publishers.  Did you have this experience? Can you describe it for us?

MS. WEISS:  The Globe credential gives me some built-in goodwill from readers who know my columns, and it helps to break the ice when I get in touch with bloggers and media outlets. I found my amazing cover artist, Wendy Wahman, because she’s done work for the Globe. And I’m lucky to be married to a former newspaper editor who gave me the toughest, most thorough line edit imaginable. But any writers can find partners in the e-publishing process. Outsource some of the technical jobs. (I have a great e-formatter to recommend.) Ask your writer friends to edit ruthlessly. Google with abandon.

MS. BLUM:  So I guess that means I should start Googling people other than myself….  What is your greatest fear about indie publishing?

MS. WEISS:  The same fear any writer has: That a book will fall in the digital forest and it won’t make a sound. But nearly all of my friends who have traditional publishing deals have had to do their own publicity and self-promotion. We’re all tweeting together.

Another fear I have is that books will be devalued. E-books are, by definition, less costly than print books. That’s part of their appeal. And there are certainly authors who have made oodles of money by selling books at $0.99 a pop. But I’d hate for $0.99 to become a standard price for books. The time and effort that goes into a book, the pleasure that comes out of it – that’s worth more than a dollar to me. Always.

MS. BLUM:  Amen, sister! And what is your greatest hope about indie publishing?

MS. WEISS:  That it will open up opportunities for the many wonderful authors who – because they don’t star on reality shows or write about lusty vampires — are having trouble getting attention from traditional publishers today. This isn’t a knock on publishing houses; they’re businesses that have to be concerned about the bottom line. But removing the gatekeepers from publishing will allow even more voices to be heard. It will also empower writers, both financially and creatively. Some are already entering into collaboratives – their own imprints, in a sense – to help prepare and promote one another’s work.

MS. BLUM:  Let’s get down to it and answer the question everyone’s confused about but afraid to ask: how do you make MONEY indie publishing?

MS. WEISS:  In this age of the shrinking advance, one could argue that e-publishing is a faster way to make money on books. If you charge $2.99 or more in the Kindle store, you automatically get a 70 percent royalty. I’ve seen analyses that say a writer gets a 14.9 percent royalty under a traditional publishing deal. I put up a modest amount of money to launch MILKSHAKE–for a proofreader, a formatter, and cover art–and have calculated that I need to sell 350 books to earn it back. The rest is gravy.

(MS. BLUM: 350 books? That’s it? Holy cow!)

MS. WEISS:  One thing that will need to be sorted out is the role agents will play in this new e-publishing world. I think there will still be a demand for help with project management, editing, and publicity. But what that’s worth will depend on the agent, the writer, and the project.

MS. BLUM:  Are there any unexpected fringe benefits about indie publishing? Have there been surprises for you in the process?

MS. WEISS:  The best benefit, by far, has been the relationships I’ve been made with other authors. Writers (like you!) have been uniformly supportive and encouraging, and generous in reading drafts and offering advice. One day, I emailed Houston-based author Joni Rodgers – as a stranger, out of the blue — with a question about the business. Within weeks, I’d gained an editor, collaborator, and friend, and found some great new books to download to my Kindle.

That’s been the other big surprise: How much I love my Kindle. I’m a dead-tree girl by definition. But when I was deciding whether to go this route, I bought a Kindle and downloaded my first book. And here’s what I learned: If you get immersed in a book, you don’t notice how you’re reading it. You care about the words and the ideas. I could be reading magic marker on a rolled-up scroll and I’d still be sitting up at 2 a.m., sacrificing sleep to get to the end of THE STORMCHASERS.

MS. BLUM:  Oh YEAH you would…  Sorry.  (Ahem) What advice would you give authors who are struggling with how to publish their books in this brave new publishing world?

MS. WEISS:  Do your homework, and do it right. All of the responsibilities that would have fallen to a publisher are yours now: to get the best edit, the right cover, the right marketing plan. Putting it all into place is time-consuming and it certainly isn’t easy. But you should know that other writers have your back.

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To buy JOANNA WEISS’S debut novel MILKSHAKE, which I read when it was right out of the blender and found delicious!, please click HERE.

JOANNA’s WEBSITE

Comments

  1. Great interview! As someone whose book was recently published by a co-op press, I am a huge proponent of alternative/indie routes to publishing, and am thrilled every time I hear about authors “taking the leap” to indie. Furthermore, I’m excited to read this book! Adding it to my Kindle queue now….

  2. Rachel Sides says:

    I have a friend who wrote a book on marketing and had it published via the traditional route and was disappointed with the outcome. She felt that the publishing house was making all of the money and she was doing all of the work or “marketing.” So, for the next two books, she has chosen the self-publishing path with print-on-demand and Kindle downloads. She is thrilled with the success especially since the Kindle sales have had virtually no marketing. Check her out http://www.leighcranefreeman.com/

  3. What a great post, Jenna and Joanna. It’s so hard to know “which” way is the way to go, but also so wonderful to read stories of indie authors who have been empowered (and dare I say – who are making MONEY) to take an alternative path. My only question is: that when there is a lack of gatekeepers, doesn’t it make it that much harder for readers to weed out the good books from the bad…?

    • Melissa, I’m so glad you liked the post! I admire Joanna so much for trailblazing and I know she’ll be a great success–because the book is great. We just have to drive people to it–one of the tasks writers who indie-publish will face, I’d guess. Yes, I wonder about gatekeepers too, yet another question that has been posed to the crystal ball but not yet answered. My sense is: good writing will always rise to the top, like cream. Just because you write something doesn’t mean it’s good. But if you write something good and believe it and fight for it wholeheartedly, it *will* be read. That’s always been my belief.

      And with writers forming their own co-ops, there will be a new sort of gatekeeping. Just because writers help each other–and SHOULD and MUST–doesn’t mean we all sanction lazy writing. We have to help each other do our best.

      xo,
      Jenna.

  4. I had a similar experience. My agent wasn’t able to sell my novel in NYC; the commercial houses said it is too literary, the literary houses said it is too commercial. Go figure. Finally, a small press that publishes ebooks and print-on-demand published it and it’s being released next week. They did the cover, editing, etc. but I received no advance and am doing my own marketing. So many hats! So I applaud authors who go the indie route. I believe that the readers who are meant to find your book, will. Write it and they will come!

    • Monica, HUGE congratulations on the publication of your book! (Listen, missy, we need to see a link so we can buy it. Please post it!) Talent is but one requisite of succeeding in the writing game. Determination and belief in your work are the other two–and, of course, doing the best writing you possibly can.

      Happy publication!

      xo,
      Jenna.

  5. Great interview, Jenna, and I thoroughly enjoyed your novel, Joanna! Read, laugh, think, repeat.

    Gofightwin MILKSHAKE!

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