Barbadian Callie Browning is a successful independent author. Her accomplishments include being named one of Oprah Magazine’s 16 Books by Caribbean Authors to Add to Your Reading List, one of Yahoo!’s 10 Must-Read Caribbean Books, one of the Jamaica Gleaner’s Top 10 Books for 2021 by Caribbean Authors, among many others – the only independently published book from my scan of each of the named lists. Her books include the novels The Girl with the Hazel Eyes and The Vanishing Girls, and the short story collection The Secrets of Catspraddle Village. I reached out to Callie because part of what I try to do here at Wadadli Pen is celebrate us (Caribbean artists) and create content from which we can all (artists everywhere but especially the Caribbean) learn. I’ve watched her moves and I think aspiring and practicing authors could learn a lot from her (I want to learn how to be both successful and anonymous – because good luck finding a photo of her through google).
I’m happy she has generously consented to share the secrets to her self-publishing success. – JCH
by Callie Browning
I started self-publishing as a lark. Now the joke is on me. Many people have asked me to show them a blueprint for my achievements. Each and every time, I’m clueless as to how to give them a satisfying answer. For me to attribute my success to writing an “incredible book” would never do justice to the bits of luck and chance that have come my way, my mindset about self-publishing or the sometimes insane work ethic that accompanies all of the above. When the divine Ms Hillhouse asked me to write this blog post, I again racked my brain to conceive of a proper explanation for my journey and for a while I came up short. But by sitting with it for a few months, I’ve finally come up with a few key takeaways.
I’ll start at the beginning.
In 2019 when I released The Girl with the Hazel Eyes, I had absolutely no idea how to properly launch a book. The first lesson I’ll pass on to you is don’t let that deter you. Having no idea is sometimes a blessing because it frees you from the shackles of what is sometimes antiquated thinking about self-publishing. That’s because the best-laid plans are no guarantee of success. I sent Hazel Eyes out into the world the very moment I got the final files for the book cover. You’ll come across tons of advice telling you NOT to do that. They’ll advocate teasing the cover, creating a book trailer, etcetera, etcetera. And I’ll tell you that maybe they’re right. But at the same time, Hazel Eyes is by far the most decorated war hero in my garrison so it’s proof that sometimes doing things backwards works out better in the end.
The second takeaway I’ll give you is from the master of pop culture books himself, Stephen King (even though I’ve taken some liberty with its definition). Stephen said to kill your darlings and I’ve applied this ethos to every aspect of self-publishing, not just the actual writing and editing. There are three darlings I’ve killed above all others: my ego, alleged formulas, and my pre-conceived notions. Here’s why:
Your ego will make you tell yourself that you spent three years writing this book, X dollars on a snazzy cover and countless hours formatting, marketing, and all the rest of it. Therefore, there’s no way you’re going to give it away for free. Darling reader, the numbers are against you. Estimates put the new books that enter the market at 10,000+ a day. Some of those books have experienced teams behind them and big marketing dollars. Giving it away for free (safely — try to make sure it doesn’t get bootlegged) is the best way to get readers and reviewers who are invested in you. I don’t know what came over me when I decided to give away Hazel Eyes for free one week after launching, but I did. And one of the readers became not only a close friend but also a stalwart champion of my work. She promoted it to her book club and to anyone else who would listen to her ramble on about it. LOL. And that snowballed into people telling other people who told other people. And those people also posted photos on Instagram and left reviews on Goodreads. All of which led other people to buy the book in the end.
Take time away from writing if you need to (which people tell you not to do) and come back to it when you have the mental fortitude. Yes, there is something to be said for the consistency of using your writing muscle but if your mind isn’t to it, sometimes the best thing you can do is just leave it alone. Sometimes following someone else’s formula makes you feed behaviours that don’t help you in the long run.
Pre-conceived notions need to die. If anyone had said to me that I’d become known for historical women’s fiction I would have said, “never!”. Simply because I tend to gravitate to fantasy books a lot and that’s what I thought I would write if I ever got the chance. Never fight the story that’s coming from your fingertips. Your natural writing cadence is your greatest gift and trying to force it to be something that it isn’t will not do you any favours. Even though my dream is to write a fantasy novel (which has been languishing for years on my computer), I don’t fight the stories that come very easily to me because I still enjoy telling them. Just write and see where it takes you.
My third tip is an extension of the previous sentence: surrender to things. Joanne asked me how I managed to get government funding for a European writing workshop and studio time for my upcoming audiobook. The stories around these two events may sound unbelievable and like the stuff of fairytales, but I’ll tell them nonetheless. Someone reached out to me on Instagram and asked me if I’d be interested in applying for a retreat. Even though I didn’t know the person from Adam nor what I was really applying for, I said yes. That person then contacted the Ministry of Culture, told them about the workshop and asked them to sponsor me. To my great surprise, they did. It’s important to point out that because I’m a shameless self-promoter who’s also fairly friendly that sometimes many people that I don’t know reach out to me because they like my work and offer to assist me with random things. (That’s tip number four — network, network, network) That’s also how I got funding for my very first audiobook, The Secrets of Catspraddle Village, an anthology of award-winning short stories. A Bookstafriend sent me a link about a seminar for an audiobook class which the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) was hosting. I signed up because I thought “eh, why not?”. What I thought would just be an informative seminar turned out to be an even bigger blessing. Every single person who attended was given studio time to help them record their audiobooks. (Shout out to the NCF for supporting Bajan culture, btw!) BUT please note that (a) I already had material written which was deemed good enough for my application to the writing retreat (b) Catspraddle Village was already compiled since I had planned to release the anthology this year. I say that to say this: (tip five) you don’t have to get ready if you stay ready. In both of those instances, I was (unknowingly) prepared.
I hope you’ve gotten to the end of my musings with the realisation that while I haven’t presented tangible items which you can action, I’ve advocated for a certain type of mindset which I believe is the common thread which I and many of my author friends have in common. All of our journeys are unique because I haven’t come across any two writers who can attribute their success to a single moment or action outside of always staying positive and being willing to put in the work. I have no agent, manager, or big budget behind anything that I’ve done. And yet, my books have been featured by Oprah Daily, Yahoo, In the Know, the Jamaica Gleaner, Hearst LatinX, Medium, the Barbara Bush Foundation and Publisher’s Weekly called one of my short stories “a standout.” Not to mention an entire anthology of stories which have all won awards.
I say that to say this to you: chart your own course and don’t be bogged down with doing things in a conventional fashion. Beautiful art resonates and will set its own standard in the end. Look at me; I’ve done everything wrong and it’s turned out alright.
Callie’s next book, The Secret of Catspraddle Village, is expected to drop on May 2nd 2023.
As with all content on Wadadli Pen, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, With Grace, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, The Jungle Outside, and To be a Cheetah – the latter scheduled for July 2023 release and available for pre-order wherever you buy books at this writing). All Rights Reserved. Subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.