By Alex Segura
This is the first in a new series of interviews I'll be doing here at DSD. Hope you enjoy the ride.
I don't think I formally announced this on the site, but a few weeks ago via Twitter I put the call out to authors who might be interested in chatting about their work here in my little piece of Do Some Damage real estate. My author friend Jess Lourey didn't ask, actually, but I was chatting with her about something else and I mentioned this was happening. She was keen to do it and here we are. I had the pleasure of meeting Jess in person at last year's great Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee event, and she was very welcoming to a newbie novelist (that's me!). She's a great writer, with a lot of invaluable information and advice to pass along. Probably best known for her acclaimed Murder-By-Month series of mysteries, Jess has also written YA, launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for one of her latest projects and also manages to teach creative writing (among other things) at a college in Minnesota. So, yeah. Lots of stuff going on.
I was most curious to talk to Jess about The Catalain Book of Secrets - a genre-blending novel that Jess funded via Kickstarter and self-published. I wanted to find out more about the challenges of self-publishing and balancing those efforts with a pre-existing audience/fandom in another genre. It also seemed like a lot of work, to be honest. Without the benefit of a traditional publishing setup, you have to do everything as an indie author -or outsource it to someone you supervise. Designing a cover, editing the manuscript, getting distribution...everything. It's daunting. Yet somehow, Jess makes it seem easy. She shares some pages from her own book of secrets below.
Thank you for having me! Let's see. The Catalain Book of Secrets is the best thing I've ever written, a book with magic in it. In the words of a recent St. Paul Pioneer Press review, it's "part thriller, part mystery, part magical realism." Because it doesn't fit neatly in a genre, I wasn't able to find a traditional publisher for it, though I got close enough to have phone calls with three different editors at Random House and Simon & Schuster. When I wasn't able to land a contract, against all social conditioning and self-preservation urges, I launched a Kickstarter campaign. It was successful, and allowed me to self-publish the book on12/12/2015. I just couldn't let the book die without seeing the world, you know? I'd started writing it in 2002, a reaction to the unexpected death of my husband, and in many ways, it's the idea that launched my vision of myself as a writer. Here is the very first line of The Catalain Book of Secrets:
Ursula was twelve years old when her mother asked her to murder a man.
That'd keep me reading, definitely. Now, you've gone outside the mystery genre a few times over your career, right? What is it about books like The Catalain Book of Secrets that hooked you as a reader and, in turn, motivated you to write one?
I self-published a YA novel, The Toadhouse Trilogy: Book One (super-original title at the end, right?), in 2012. That book is about a brother and sister who realize they're living inside of the novel Tom Sawyer. They have to escape the book, and the ankle-eating evil of Biblos, to recover three items that will reunite them with their parents. I have yet to write the second and the third, though I can't wait to get back to them. I am attracted to that story for the same reason I am attracted to The Catalain Book of Secrets--they're both great stories that came to me from the ether, and they both look sideways so they can see the magic in our lives, whether it's the transporting magic of a story or the powerful magic of family.
What's the self-publishing process been like? Was this a novel you'd shopped around for a while?
Hmm. The self-publishing process. It has been an adventure--in humility, in highs and lows, in self-awareness. Once I had The Catalain Book of Secrets Kickstarter funding, I hired a cover designer, an interior designer, a proofreader, and a website developer. I also set up an account with IngramSpark, as I knew I wanted to make the book available to indie bookstores. In addition, I updated my Createspace account, because realistically, the majority of self-pub sales come through Amazon (though I've had wonderful support from indies on this book, and so my sales have been 50% indie, 50% Amazon, which I love). Then, I began to send out review copies: Kirkus and IndieReader (paid for reviews from both), Midwest Book Review, Publishers Weekly, Booklist (I waited too long on them--note to self: send review copy there first when self-publishing), Library Journal, and newspapers all over the country. I also made a review copy available through NetGalley, which seems to mostly cater to bloggers and librarians, a powerful bunch in the book world.
The Catalain Book of Secrets has sold approximately 500 copies in the month or so it's been out. That's good by self-pub standards, terrible if you need to make a living at it (which I do). My tenth Murder-by-Month Mystery, February Fever, comes out in two weeks, and I'm hoping that will bump my self-pub sales.
So all told, here's my perspective on self-publishing: always try the traditional route first. If you don't get a contract, you can self-publish, whereas it's nearly impossible to do it the other way around. I like the freedom of self-publishing. I do not like the tremendous cost of doing it right (several thousand dollars for the cover, rounds of editing, marketing, interior layout; my Kickstarter campaign paid for half of it, for which I'm eternally grateful). I'm also not a fan of the fact that, with hundreds of thousands of books being self-published each year, it's difficult to be heard in the noise. That said, I have many friends who have wonderful self-publishing experiences, and I think it's good business to be a hybrid author.
Were there any challenges you came across that you hadn't anticipated? In terms of being a one-stop shop for your book, what skills did you feel you had to hone - publicity, marketing, etc?
My tenth traditionally-published book comes out in February, and that previous publishing experience was invaluable. I had connections with authors, reviewers, and bookstores. I had an idea of how the model worked. I'm pretty good at keeping records, I'd already formed an LLC, and I had an audience already. I wish I had a distributor, but it's just me, which makes it hard to get the book in bookstores (though B & N has a review process for stocking self-pubbed books, and organizations like IndieBound and MIBA want to work with professional self-pubbers, in my experience). Besides not being great at distribution, I'm a terrible salesperson--I'd ALWAYS rather hear the person I'm with talk than hear myself talk--and that's not going to change. Or maybe it can? Do you offer classes, Alex? :)
Hey, I'm happy to help whenever! We know each other via the warm and welcoming crime and mystery writing world and you have a long and successful career writing mysteries - why would this book appeal to that readership? Can you tell us anything about your upcoming mystery work?
Isn't the mystery community the best in the world? It's a real gift that I found my tribe. As far as The Catalain Book of Secrets appealing to mystery writers, I think that's an easy sell (but what do I know?). The story is centered around a murder, with a whole lot of magic, relationships, sadness, hope, and love to support it. As far as my upcoming work, I can say with confidence that February Fever (release date: 2/8/15) is the best yet in my Murder-by-Month mysteries (and Kirkus and Booklist agree, with a starred review from the latter), and that if you like funny mysteries, you'll enjoy February Fever.
But what I'm working on now is the most exciting project I've ever undertaken. It's a thriller, which I'm surprised to find is a perfect fit with the way I like to write and the things I like to write about (justice, strong women, the dirt and beauty of life). It's tentatively called Salem. Here's the working synopsis:
Salem and Izzy must uncover the connection between the Witch Hunt of the 1600s and the modern disappearance of single mothers all over the globe to stop the assassination of Senator Gina Kennedy, the first viable female Presidential candidate in the history of the United States.
That sounds intense. I'm in. As you may know, Do Some Damage is a blog where crime writers get to talk about their experiences at various stages of their careers. Can you share a few nuggets of advice to our readers (and fellow bloggers)?
Oh man, it's hard not to sound trite here, but here's the only truth I've found in the writing business: if, when you write, you feel like you're in the right time and place, never stop. I don't mean that writing ever gets easy. The opposite seems to be true--the more I learn, the more I'm confident I don't know anything. I write five days a week. Every single day, Each day, I play this "would you rather" game with myself, where I mess around on social media, clean my bathroom with a Q-tip, anything to not have to write. I pretend that that fear? crisis of confidence? hummingbird-attention span? will go away some day and I'll find myself racing to the computer on a regular basis, stories flowing from my fingertips. I know that's not true, though. Writing will always be the hardest thing I ever do. I will always give bad reviews 99% of my attention and treat good reviews as flukes. I will always feel like the redheaded stepchild when I'm on panels with the superstars. And still, I write. Because when I do, when I finally shut off the monkey brain and get to the work, I feel like I'm in the right time and in the right place. Every time. Without fail.
What have you been reading/watching/listening to that's got you jazzed or inspired?
I wish I watched more TV. I hear my friends talk, and it sounds like the best writing out there is coming from that sector. I love movies, but I have pedestrian tastes (Galaxy Quest is one of my top ten favorites of all time). And when I write, I prefer silence, so I rarely listen to music during the process. But I do immerse myself in books, their content always specific to what I'm writing. So, I'm writing a thriller now. I have a stack of 23 books (just left my computer to count) that are either on symbology/computer forensics, the European and American with hunt and the history of women in religion, or are thrillers themselves so I can internalize the pacing. I LOVE THE RESEARCH!!!!
And thank you for having me. :)