The Ins and Outs of Indie Publishing with PJ Sharon

Welcome to Wild Card Wednesday.  Today,  I have a special treat for y’all.  YA author PJ Sharon is here to talk about her experiences in self-publishing.  Be sure to check out Stacy Green’s interview with Laura Kaye about publishing with a small press.

This post is longer than usual, but I hope it helps to inform authors considering indie publishing.  Like they said on School House Rock: knowledge is power.

Be sure to comment because PJ Sharon is giving away a signed print copy of her newest YA novel, Savage Cinderella, to one lucky commenter.  The contest closes at midnight EST, so don’t let it get away.  Rules for the contest are at the end of the post. 

Let’s give PJ Sharon a big Full-Tilt Backwoods Boogie welcome and see what she has to say about indie publishing.

Indie publishing in general:

Catie: PJ, the decision for you to become an indie author was not one you reached overnight.

PJ: I spent six months reading books about self-publishing and following blogs by trailblazers in the field like DD Scott, Scott Nicholson, and JA Konrath. I was inspired by their passion, success, and commitment to helping other authors succeed. It occurred to me that they were far more willing to help me become published than any agent or editor I’d pitched my work to. That spoke volumes to me.

Catie: In other interviews, you mention entering contests and doing well.  Other authors praised your writing.  Despite the positive comments, you couldn’t interest an agent or traditional publisher in your work.  Your work didn’t fit neatly into a genre.

PJ: I pitched two of my stories to a half dozen or more agents and editors over a two year period of time. I had several requests for partial manuscripts, sent them in and got rejections for a variety of reasons. I sent out close to a hundred queries to targeted agents and editors with mixed results, but ultimately I chalked up about forty or fifty rejections before I started really considering self-publishing.

I’m not easily discouraged, but I hate wasting my time on something that isn’t working. I considered the amount of time I was spending on researching agents and editors and preparing submissions, synopses, and queries, and realized I’d much rather be spending that time marketing and promoting my books and actually earning a paycheck.

 

Catie: After thinking things over, you realized that traditional publishing would net you only 10% of the profit while you did 90% of the work.

PJ: This was the biggest motivator for me. When I turned forty and I was still making the same income I was making at thirty, I had an epiphany. I realized that I was earning for someone else, three times what I was earning for myself. I also knew that I would never be paid what my time was worth to me until I was working for myself. Ultimately, I decided to work smarter, not harder.

After 19 years as a Physical Therapist Assistant, I had significant skills and was very good at my job, but I was going nowhere with only an associate’s degree. I was also ready to start treating more holistically and was tired of the traditional medical model of treating body parts. I went back to school, got licensed as a massage therapist and personal trainer, and opened my own business. As a private business owner, I earn as much working 20-30 hours a week now as I made working 40-45 hours a week for someone else. I have a flexible schedule, no one to answer to, and a sense of independence and control that I never had before—totally worth the risks involved in taking the plunge. But the best part is being able to spend an hour of hands-on healing time with clients. They always look forward to seeing me and I feel that I make a positive difference in their lives.

When I began writing YA stories, I realized I had the potential to do the same thing for young readers, and I think having experienced success in my private practice gave me the courage it took to self-publish.

 

Catie: Now that you’ve taken the plunge, what do you love most about being and indie author?  Least?

PJ: Most–I love the independence and the forward motion of it. I’m not waiting on anyone else to make decisions for me or tell me what I can and can’t do. I also love the immediate gratification of seeing each step in the process come to fruition. That includes being able to check my sales reports on a daily basis and monitor my success. I phrase it that way because I see every step forward as success. Even if it means that I’m discovering what isn’t working.

Least–The overwhelming learning curve and the daunting amount of new information I have to weed through to figure out the path of least resistance. The industry is changing at the speed of light and it’s impossible to keep up with every opportunity that pops up. I’m learning to be at peace with knowing that I can’t do it all (nor should I try), and that whatever I can manage will be exactly enough. Finding balance isn’t easy, but it is a worthwhile endeavor.

 

Catie: I’ve read that the key to an indie publishing success is having a backlist.  You have published three books—and done quite a professional job of it—in less than a year.  Will you keep up the pace of three (or more) books a year or was this just a first year strategy?

PJ: Thanks, Catie. It’s been a lot of hard work, but I did already have the three books written. They needed editing and polishing before they were publish-ready, but I wanted to get them out in quick succession for exactly the reason you mentioned—to create a backlist.

One of the down sides to traditional publishing is the amount of time it takes to get books out to readers. By the time a second book comes out it’s usually six months to a year later and readers have either forgotten all about that new author, or they are frustrated by having to wait.

Ideally, I’d like to try for three books a year. If that becomes unrealistic or unmanageable, I may follow the industry standard of two full length novels a year and try to supplement my cyber-shelf with short stories or novellas, or join with other authors for anthologies. I know plenty of authors keeping the pace of three to four books a year. It just might mean I have to cut back on my day job hours, which is the long term plan anyway. What I don’t want to do is sacrifice quality for quantity.

Catie: Now that you’ve seen some success with indie publishing, what would it take for you to sign a contract with a traditional publisher? What might that contract look like?

PJ: I would love to be approached by a publisher who wants to collaborate on a project, is willing to pay me a serious advance (I would consider anything above $10,000 as serious since I would probably not see a paycheck for at least six months to a year after release), and who is able and willing to offer support with marketing and promotion. Now that I know exactly what goes into getting a book published, I would have much more confidence in choosing an agent or publisher to work with, but I won’t be beating down anyone’s door. Being self-published eliminates the desperation factor that most writers have when dealing with the publishing world. You know…the OMG-they-want-me-I’d-better-say-yes, experience. I feel like it would be a lot more work for me to find that right agent or editor than it would be for them to find me at this point.

Costs:

Catie: Indie publishing is a booming business, both for authors and for service providers.  A quick Internet search can turn up hundreds of businesses who offer editing, cover art design, formatting for e-books, and various marketing services.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you spent approximately $1000 dollars to publish your first book, Heaven is For Heroes.  You learned enough to save money publishing your second book, On Thin Ice.  By the time you published your third book, Savage Cinderella, you had production costs down to $300—which, by the way, is a pretty impressive savings.

In every endeavor, there are necessary costs in producing a quality product.  What services would you advise aspiring indie authors to work into their budgets if at all possible?  What services could (or should) a new indie author do himself to cut costs?

PJ: My advice is to do as much for yourself as you can do, and do well. The one cost I wouldn’t skimp on is editing. Because there are so many new service providers out there, shop around and ask for recommendations from other indie-authors.

I don’t pay for my covers, my book trailers, or my formatting because my husband is incredibly tech savvy and has an eye for art, and he happens to enjoy being my assistant. If you don’t have that kind of support, pay someone. Your cover is the first thing that sells your book. Be willing to invest in creating the best product possible. You can get a good cover made for $100-200, formatting for under $50, and decent editing for about $300-500. The only real cost so far on my third book was the editing

 

Catie: Finding the right people to provide the services you need is a daunting task for many authors.  Everybody has a nice looking website and makes themselves sound professional.  Do you have a process for finding and vetting service providers?

PJ: Since we do most of it ourselves, I haven’t had to do too much searching, but I recommend asking other indie authors. The Indie Romance Ink yahoo group is an incredible resource for all things indie. They are a great group of people who are always willing to answer questions and offer suggestions. I also highly recommend the WG2E website (Writers Guide to E-publishing). They have excellent resources available with lists of high quality providers.

Catie: It is likely every author will spend some money on advertising.  What was the best use of your advertising dollars?  The worst?

PJ: I advertised on Pixel Of Ink for about $129 and sold almost 300 books in a day which put me on one of the Kindle best sellers list for a few hours. Unfortunately, my book was priced at .99 and I didn’t even recoup the cost of the ad. I would like to try it again with my book at a higher price point, but POI has increased their prices drastically and there’s a very long lead time to getting on their site. Last I knew they were closed to submissions for 2012 and it’s a very small window of opportunity when they are open.

Kindle Nation Daily is another high cost/high yield advertising opportunity that I’d like to try, but mostly, I go for the free or low cost advertising sites. I’m waiting for E-reader News Today to open for submissions. I hear they get quite good results for their ads. I haven’t figured out how to work advertising into my budget effectively, but I’m hoping to remedy that in the next few months. Still so much to learn! 

 

Marketing:

Catie: For many writers, reaching out to readers beyond the writing community proves to be a difficult task.  What helped you reach out to readers outside the writing community?

PJ: I’m still trying to figure that out as well. I’m consistently blogging on various author’s sites, hoping to tap into their readership and keep my name and work visible. Although my ultimate target audience is teens, it’s clear that they have little buying power and that YA authors need to focus on reaching adult readers of YA and adults who are buying for teens.

I just spoke with a client of mine who is a life coach and she had some great ideas about how to reach this audience. I’ll be working that into my marketing plan over the next few months. She suggested pursuing groups on Linked In, a social network that I belong to but haven’t really explored. I hesitate to spread myself any thinner, but her rationale was valid. She suggested joining just a few groups, such as mothers of teens, high school coaches, teachers, and PTO’s. I’ll let you know how that goes.

 

Catie: You are on several social networking sites.  Which one is your most effective marketing tool?  How do you use it?  Which social networking site is, in your opinion, the biggest waste of time?

PJ: Ouch! You don’t mince words, my friend. I like that about you. I mostly use      FaceBook. I link it to my Twitter account so that anything I post to FB also goes to Twitter. I’m just starting to get the hang of Twitter and don’t use it to its fullest potential. But I also don’t get caught up in the time-suck of it either.

I check in to Twitter once or twice a day, Retweet anything I think my tweeps might like to see, and then move on. I check into FB a little more often but don’t necessarily engage in all the chit chat. I think social media can be an amazing tool if it’s used judiciously and doesn’t become a distraction. If I had to give one up, it would be Twitter. I don’t see teens using it to follow authors and I don’t imagine there are many mom’s hanging out there either.

The Future:

Catie: The publishing market is changing every day.  Indie authors were once considered a vanity market.  Authors such as yourself are changing the face of indie publishing and making it a truly competitive market.  How do you see self-publishing evolving?

PJ: It’s an amazing time to be an author in this groundbreaking trend of self-publishing. I imagine it will continue to grow at an alarming rate over the next few years. The problem will continue to be quality control. For readers, they face weeding through the gazillion new books flooding the market to find the good ones. For authors, that means finding new ways to stand out in the crowd and reaching readers with quality content. What I don’t want to see is self-publishing and digital markets put traditional publishers and brick and mortar book stores out of business. Amazon cornering the market will eventually bite everyone in the butt.

Catie: What do you think publishers have to do to compete and stay alive?

PJ: I think publishers need to change the way they do business. They need to become more author-friendly. For the past seventy years, they have had the advantage of having thousands of writers beating down their doors looking to grab one of a dozen slots in their elite stables. Publishers could afford to pick and choose, they could offer the starving writer whatever pittance they thought they could get away with paying, and they maintained total control of the end product, the production schedule, and the author’s royalties. Of course, you get those star pupils who stand out and make them a bundle of money, so it’s in their best interest to treat that author like their favorite child. But I know a ton of mid-listers who have gotten unceremoniously dumped if they weren’t selling out their print-runs in a timely manner.

Basically, I think they need to do away with this adversarial approach and treat authors as partners, which means at least a fifty-fifty split of the profits, a say in cover art, and help with marketing. They also need to let authors write what they want and help them find a market for it rather than expecting authors to fit into a box that the marketing department says they can sell. I believe Indies are selling as well as they are because readers are tired of the same old thing and are ready for some variety. If it’s good writing, there will be a market for it.

 

On a Personal Note:

Catie: Name your three favorite self-pubbed authors.

PJ: I’ve been primarily reading YA the past year. I loved Cat Kalen’s Wolf’s Pride series, Renee Pace’s Off Leash, and Maree Anderson’s Freaks of Greenfield High.

Catie: What is the best book you’ve read in the last three months?

PJ: Pride’s Run by Cat Kalen. Loved it!

 

PJ Sharon is author of contemporary young adult novels, including HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES, a finalist in the Denver Heart of Romance Molly contest. Her stories have garnered several contest finals, including a place in the Wisconsin Romance Writers FAB Five contest for ON THIN ICE.  Her third novel, SAVAGE CINDERELLA, was a finalist in the prestigious Valley Forge Romance writer’s contest as well as the Florida Romance Writers GOLDEN PALM contest in 2010.

On the road to publication, PJ decided that indie-publishing was the best fit for her books. Although the themes are mature, evoking plenty of drama and teen angst, PJ writes with a positive outlook and promises a hopefully ever after end to all of her books. She believes in strong heroines empowered by learning valuable life lessons. Because of this, readers of all ages will be captivated by the emotional and romantic journeys of her characters.

Writing romantic fiction for the past six years, and following her destiny to write Extraordinary stories of an average teenage life, PJ has been a member of Romance Writers of America since 2007 and is an active member of the Young Adult chapter of RWA. She is mother to two grown sons and lives with her husband and her dog in the Berkshire Hills of Western MA.

Buy Links for HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES

Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, CreateSpace

Buy Links for ON THIN ICE

AmazonB&N,  Smashwords,  Create Space

Buy Links for SAVAGE CINDERELLA

Amazon, B&N