I met Eugenia (Nina) O’Neal of the BVI a while ago at the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami. How long ago? Well, put it this way: that was the summer I started working on The Boy from Willow Bend which has been on the market 10 years already now (wow!) and which took its sweet time about finding a publisher. So, yeah, a while ago and a time I remember fondly. Eugenia has been very busy since then; writing and publishing and writing and publishing. There’s her non-fiction book From the Field to the Legislature: A History of Women in the Virgin Islands, published by Greenwood Press in 2001; the contemporary romance Just an Affair, published with Genesis Press in 2003; historical romance Dido’s Prize, published by Parker Publishing in 2008; and several self-published titles including the street drama The Water of Sunlight, 2012; the historical novel, Jessamine, 2012; crime drama Collision, 2013; and Storm Warning, a collection of short crime fiction, 2013 – some of these kindle only. Very, very prolific. How does she do it. Well obviously that’s the first thing I asked.
Eugenia O’Neal: If I told you, I’d have to kill you! Ha! Actually, I can work fairly fast if I have a large block of time when I have nothing to do but write. If you’ve got four weeks of writing time (no 9 – 5, no child-care, etc.) and you’re able to do at least 1,000 words a day that should see you halfway to the first draft of a novel or even further if you increase your daily word count.
Me: As a writer what draws you to a story…clearly you don’t stick to a single genre…what attracts you?
EO: Hard to say. I read a newspaper article or see something on television and an idea begins to percolate but it may be years before all the different threads I’m thinking about come together for a story. And then again there was Jessamine which came to me almost fully-formed during my visit to an old church in St. Lucia more than a decade ago. People have to be open to ideas and ready to put them down. I always have a notebook with me to write down ideas about a scene, a character or a setting.
Me: You were head of the Women’s Desk, a Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Welfare and held other positions in the civil service according to your online bio. Have you given it up to write full time? If so, how do you make it work given that so many writers have to have other streams of income?
EO: I’m writing full time but I’m far from earning a living from my books. I’ve got other income coming in and I also take on freelance work so that helps tremendously. Earlier you asked about the different genres I write in and I believe that’s been part of my problem – a reader who liked Jessamine but doesn’t like crime fiction isn’t likely to pick up Storm Warning and The Water of Sunlight, the story of a crack-addicted prostitute, isn’t likely to gain fans among the historical fiction set. In the immediate future I’m going to restrict my genre hopping until I’ve built up an audience which I hope will then follow me on my genre explorations.
Me: You’ve gone both the self-publishing and traditional publishing route. Which do you prefer and why? What should you be mindful of along either path?
EO: Well, I love self-publishing because I love the control of it – I get to choose the prices and choose the covers, for example. Recently I put The Water on sale for a few weeks. A traditional author can’t do that – the publisher will do it for them, if at all. But I can monitor my sales since all the various platforms have pretty good reporting mechanisms and I can see what works and what doesn’t. For example, I might put an ad in a particular publication to run for a week and I can check to see whether my sales increased that week or the following which I can then attribute to that particular ad or promotion. Oh, and let’s not forget that publishing on your own gets you much higher royalties. Amazon, for instance, offers royalties of 70% and most other platforms like Kobo or Barnes and Noble offer similar rates. Traditional publishers, on the other hand, give their authors rates of between 12 and 15%. If you’re Stephen King or Nora Roberts you can probably negotiate higher rates but most of use are not King or Roberts.
Also, there are some unscrupulous people out there in the publishing industry – as agents, publishers or whatever – but I can now bypass all of that.
It is a lot of work, though, in terms of learning the formatting for the different platforms, and then marketing the book but, unless you’re a big name author, you still have to do most of the marketing yourself if you go the traditional route. I’m really very glad to have gotten off the agent and publisher treadmill though, to some extent, that’s been replaced with the book blogger and reviewer treadmill.
If anyone is considering self-publishing, I’d encourage them to learn as much about it as possible. Google is your friend! Thanks to Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, etc. writers can reach readers directly without having to bypass the gatekeepers of traditional publishing – the agents and editors. At the same time, you don’t want to get hit with one and two star reviews because you threw up something that was poorly plotted or poorly edited or just wasn’t ready (for)publication so make sure you get all your ducks in a row before deciding to publish. Unfortunately, the proliferation of self-publishing has meant a rise in scammers on this side of the fence, too. Writers have got to make sure to do their due diligence.
Me: Can you break down the components of seeking to get your book published and/or publishing yourself for our readers, including cost, editing, art, and other factors?
EO: Well, the first step whether you’re going traditional or self-published is to polish and polish your manuscript and then polish it some more. Post excerpts on a site like Critique Circle where you can get insights from complete strangers about what works and what doesn’t. (You don’t have to listen to every single piece of advice but if 10,000 Chinamen point out the same plot-hole you’d be well-advised to listen.)
Once your manuscript is the best it can be then, if you’re going the traditional publishing route, you’re going to want to identify an agent who can represent your work to publishers. Again, Googling will throw up lists of agencies …with profiles of the agents and the kinds of works they’re looking for. Be sure to read their query submission guidelines and follow them exactly. If you want, you can skip this step and go to publishers directly but most of the biggies, like Harper Collins and Random House, only accept agented submissions. Smaller publishers and all of the epublishers I know of will accept un-agented submissions from writers and some authors go this route, make a name for themselves, and then begin targeting the larger publishers.
If you’re going the self-publishing route then after you’ve completed your final edits you’re going to want to get a cover for it. You can publish without one but why would you want to? An attractive cover increases your discoverability even on the web. You can do an internet search for cover designers and get your cover custom made but this can be quite expensive – $100.00 and up – and if you have a few titles, the cost will quickly add up. There are also quite a few designers who offer pre-made covers on their websites and you can browse these to see if anyone fits. Pre-made covers cost from $15 to $65 or thereabouts which makes them an affordable option. The designer will put in your name and the title and send it to you in a size ready for use by publishing platforms. After this you’re going to want to sign into Kindle Direct Publishing where you can upload your manuscript and cover, set the price, enter the description, etc. From there it will go straight to Amazon. Amazon is the biggest seller but don’t forget Kobo, Barnes and Noble and other booksellers.
If you don’t want to go to the trouble of uploading to each individual bookseller platform you can go to a distributor like Draft2Digital or Smashwords and they’ll distribute to all the channels or booksellers you choose.
Me: There is a perception among some that self published books are not the same quality as traditionally published books (and in fact there are certain literary prizes that are only now beginning to open up to self published books). Clearly that’s not the case with you. Are you the exception? Or do self published books get a bad rap? Have those barriers come down?
EO: Self-published books definitely get a bad rap. Most of the self-published writers I know work hard on their craft and make sure they put out quality books that have been well-edited and proofed and are comparable to those from traditional publishing. Self-published authors enjoy the independence of self-publishing and the fact that they can put out books that don’t fit the mold of traditional publishers. Take Jessamine for example - it got lots of nice comments from the editors my agent sent it to back when I had an agent but they almost all said it would be difficult to market – it had romantic elements but it wasn’t a romance, it had a ghost but it wasn’t horror. One of the main women is white, the other is black. Would it go in the African-American bookstore sections or where? Half of the action takes place in the 1800s and half in the present day. It’s not a straight historical but it can’t really be called contemporary, either. Traditional publishers like being able to sum up a book quickly and clearly. They like to know where it will fit on a bookstore’s bookshelves. They want to know which audiences to market it to. Is it historical fiction? Paranormal? African-American? Now, with epublishing, those concerns are a little less relevant.
Me: Speaking of barriers coming down, epublishing seems to be outpacing print publishing though perhaps in the Caribbean many still prefer paperback? What informs your choice to issue only e versions of some of your books? What’s your prognosis for print publishing?
EO: I don’t have any stats to back it up but I think many Caribbean readers, perhaps the greater majority, still prefer print books – there’s the perception that a real book is a print book. I think this will change but not for a while. I plan to have more print editions done because those are the ones I can hand-sell at readings or wherever.
Me: Finish this sentence…if you want to be a writer you have to…?
EO: Hmm, you have to do a lot of things but one of the most important is that you have to read. Reading often and widely improves your writing. You also have to be very committed to it – it’s doubtful that you’ll see instant success with your book but the more you write, the more books you’ll have which will hopeful attract greater and greater audiences.
Having the self publishing process broken down like this makes it seem more accessible doesn’t it? In any case, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this interview, for all those people who ask me and Eugenia both, how do you do it? Her answers re self-publishing have certainly given me food for thought re my own Dancing Nude in the Moonlight which I’d one, like to re-issue, and two, love to do a Spanish language translation of. Just need the money to make it happen (it always comes back to the money, doesn’t it?); but now I have a better idea, once I do somehow, someday, someway pocket the money of how. My own experience to date has been strictly with the traditional publishers and though I still lean that way, she makes some good points. Anyway, it’s up to you, reader, figure out your own path and walk it.
As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.