Interview with Tracy Marchini

Self-Publishing Week continues with a visit from Tracy Marchini. As some of you may know, Tracy and I worked together at Curtis Brown, Ltd. when we were young and wide-eyed assistants. She was in the children’s department and then landed a real live literary agent of her own! Tracy’s roots (if you will) are in traditional publishing, and she took that knowledge with her when considering self-publishing. As you’ll see, she’s found a way to balance both and proves that there doesn’t need to be such a concrete divide between Traditional & Self.
How many agents did you query before landing one?
To be honest, I don’t really remember!  I’ve actually had two agents (though one was for a very brief point in time), so if you compile both searches, it was probably a bit over twenty or so.  My last agent and I parted ways when she was coming back from maternity leave and was consolidating her list.  I know a few authors who have terrible editor luck — every time they have a new book, their editor switches to a new house.  I am hoping that is not my destiny!  As someone who has worked at an agency, I certainly understand the value, and will probably start looking again in the near future.
What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to search for a new agent?
I had started working on Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms before my agent and I parted, but the book targets such a niche audience, that I figured it’d have a hard time attracting the attention of an agent or larger publisher.

I’d also been interested in exploring some alternatives to the traditional process, so I thought that Pub Speak would be a great opportunity for me to get my hands dirty and pub it myself.  The next day, I published Effie At The Wedding, a contemporary YA short story that had been waiting for an appropriate market for a while.
What was the first book you self-pubbed and what service did you use?
Pub Speak was the first, and I published directly to Amazon (using Kindle Direct Publishing), Barnes and Noble (using PubIt!) and Smashwords.  Through Smashwords, the book has been distributed to iTunes, Kobo, Diesel, Sony and Scrollmotion.  The print edition is being handled through CreateSpace, which is the print-on-demand arm of Amazon.

I’ve also commissioned cover art.  The covers of Pub Speak, Hot Ticket and Effie At The Wedding were all designed by Michelle Davidson Argyle.
What was your experience like? Did you have to pay for their services?
The above services are all distributors and retailers, so as the publisher of the books, I pay nothing up front*, retain all my rights to the material and receive a percentage of each book sold.  

So far, my experience has been positive.  The reporting is significantly different from traditional publishing.  Where a traditionally published author receives royalty statements every six months for the period that ended one to two months prior, I can see how many books I’ve sold in (almost) real-time through KDP and PubIt!.  (This is both a blessing and a curse!)  Smashwords pays on a quarterly basis, and their partners are a bit more like a traditional publisher, in that they pay in periods, and then you get paid when Smashwords pays out based on their quarters.

There’s certainly more leeway to react to changes in the market.  If you write a new book and want to add a sample of it to your current best-seller, it’s easy to update the file without having to take it off the market.  It’s equally easy to update the cover art, rework your blurb, experiment with the price or take the book off the market entirely.  (That said, owners that have purchased the book will not have it wiped from their devices.)

* I did pay CreateSpace $39 for extended distribution, so that the paperback editions of Pub Speak and Hot Ticket are available at retailers beyond Amazon.  There is also a charge for proofs.
What editorial process did your books go through, if any?
Hot Ticket went through several revisions with agents, and the version that’s on sale today is the version that was shopped to publishers.  My other books all go through a group of secret, trusted friends and editor/writer colleagues.
How many titles do you currently have published & what type of books are they? Are you planning to self-publish more?
You are my hero for asking this question.  ::A-hem.::
I currently have four works available:

Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms (Reference/Dictionary) – A collection of 400 publishing and contract terms.

Hot Ticket (Middle grade mystery) – Nancy Drew meets Harriet the Spy in this hysterical romp through the sixth grade.
Effie At The Wedding (YA short story) – Described by one reviewer as, “Sixteen Candles meets Bridget Jone’s Diary,” Effie has a thousand reasons why she’s not thrilled to be at her sister’s wedding — and the hideous bridesmaid’s dress isn’t even on the list.

Haunting At Heidelburgh Mansion: A Hot Ticket Short Story (Middle grade ghost story) – Juliet crashes the Un-Halloween party of the most popular girl in school, only to risk losing her best-friend to the headless bride.

I’m working on two projects currently:

The Engine Driver (YA short story) – Brig has never been allowed to hear a sad song in her entire life. Her personal Playlist Treatment Plan, designed to control her emotions by playing appropriate songs in her head, isn’t working for her. But when her friend Annaby is chosen to go to Musician’s School and is given a Permit to Carry a musical instrument, Brig might have her one chance to hear a sad song, a love song – or a song that matches what her depression feels like, instead of what her feelings should be.

Luminary (Dystopian YA novel) – In a world where the color red is outlawed and time pieces are banned, 16 year-old Brady only wants to keep his head down, go to University, and pursue the vocation assigned to him.  But when the girl he loves endangers herself by questioning the State, Brady risks his entire world to save her. In a battle for love and freedom, Brady must choose between the life mapped out for him or an idea that could get him killed.

Luminary is a dystopian Young Adult novel set in a society that uses every effort to suppress violence… including violence itself.  Luminary is scheduled for publication in the Fall.  (You can win an early copy at LibraryThing.)

My next two will be self-published, but I do believe that most authors would be more successful through both traditional and indie/self-publishing, not one or the other.  I plan to pursue both, and currently have some projects that I am submitting traditionally as well as a story that’s being published in a trad pub anthology.
In terms of traditional projects, I have a middle-grade story that’s been accepted for publication in Highlights, and I have a short story that’ll be published in an upcoming trad-pub anthology, Bad Austen: The Worst Stories Jane Never Told (Adams Media, November 2011).  The short story in Bad Austen is called “Pluck and Plumage,” and is a scene from Pride and Prejudice as if they were all ducks on a pond.  (It is a truth universally acknowledged that any story can be improved with the addition of a few ducks.)

How are your books selling? What type of royalties do you receive?
I fear it’s a little too soon for me to be reporting numbers, having only been at this six months.  But I will say:

Effie, my YA short story, is outselling my writer’s reference book by a factor of 3:1.
– That said, I’ve recouped the entire cost of producing the print and ebook editions of the reference book, and will have to sell about 140 more copies to break even on what I spent to produce Effie.
Middle grade is a harder sell without the backing of a traditional house.  Even though Hot Ticket is highly rated on Amazon, it has only sold 25% of what the YA has.
– I’ve given away over 7,500 books to help build my audience.

In terms of royalty rates, I earn:

Amazon: 70% of every book priced between $2.99 and $9.99, 35% of every book priced under (can’t go lower than 99 cents) or over
B&N: 65% of every book priced between $2.99 and $9.99, 40% of every book priced under (no less than 99 cents) or over
Smashwords: Depends on if the book was sold directly through Smashwords, or through one of their partners. 

What are you doing to promote your books?

I’ve done Goodreads and LibraryThing giveaways, email blasts, blog tours, participated in writer’s forums, Twitter contests, free promotions on Amazon and other retailers, emailed review copies to book blogs and participated in a group contest with other children’s authors.  But if the average person needs to see something seven times before it sticks with them, then I probably have to reach the same people another five times before it’s truly effective!  

Another thing I’m doing though, is writing more books.  This is not only the part that I most enjoy, but is the part that will expand my list and my potential audience.  
The majority of success stories from self-publishing have been on the adult side. What are you doing to reach your target audience?
I am texting middle-graders all over the world with, “Buy my bk & I will gve u a pony!”  Once they do, the ponies are always “lost in the mail.”  ::BWAH HA HA!::

What I’m actually doing is not worrying about marketing to middle graders specifically.  Their parents are still buying most of their books, and so hopefully, they’ll be the ones that turn to their middle-schooler and ask, “This looks funny, do you want to read this?”  If that child likes the book, perhaps they’ll tell their friends.  Or if a librarian likes it, perhaps they’ll recommend it to parents and middle-schoolers.

Word of mouth takes time to build in any genre, so I may target different blogs (parenting blogs vs. YA blogs vs. writer blogs) but my marketing actions are about the same.
[Interviewer’s Note: I am 100% in favor of texting middle schoolers and promising them ponies in exchange for book sales.]
Were there any unexpected challenges in self-publishing, things you didn’t expect would be so hard?
Well, I can’t say it’s unexpected, but it’s amazingly difficult to build a fan base. 

The other day I was thinking about one of my favorite bands, and the fact that I immediately picked up their latest album without hearing any of it.  And that if they put out an album that was sound of one cat hissing, I would probably still buy it because I would assume that they would do something that made that hiss as enjoyable as all their other albums, or because I’m invested in having their entire catalog.  Cat hiss and all.

I’m the same with certain authors – I hear about a new book coming, I assume it will be as great or greater than the last one, and I get it as soon as I can.  I think it’s hard to build that connection though – where people not only like one story, but like the ideas behind your entire body of work.  My favorite authors and musicians are my favorites not just because of the art they produce, but because I like their philosophy.  I admire one author’s opposition to book burning and censorship, I admire another band’s political message.  

I can sometimes struggle with how much of my own personal philosophy I should share.  As a children’s author, I want to tell everybody how superior ducks are to ponies (Very. Superior.) and talk about the fact that I did indeed make a bear costume for Stephen Colbert’s March to Keep Fear Alive.  As a freelance editor and the author of a publishing reference book, I feel the need to be very careful about any advice I give that relates to books, or publishing.  I don’t write a lot of book reviews because I don’t want to offend authors who happen to be friends by not reviewing a book.  And I don’t go too much into my own personal philosophy, because an editor’s read should be focused on producing a better version of the author’s story, and not writing it as I would write it.  But the same whimsy that works for a children’s author, could be seen as silly by someone who is looking for a professional critique of their work.  (Would love to hear opinions on this!)

There are also things that quickly built a fan base for past indies but that aren’t as effective now.  For example, pricing a book at 99 cents used to be an instant sales boom, but due to a flood of 99 cent books, it doesn’t move books as quickly as it used to.  Free books are great, but people are filling their Kindles with more free books than they’ll ever read.

Free and 99 cent books are like a shotgun — you shoot a large blast, maybe something will hit.  But there is a downside as well, because people will leave angry 1 star reviews if they feel like they’re being obviously marketed to, the story (though free) wasn’t worth the time it took them to read, or sometimes it’s just not their preferred genre.  Basically, don’t give anything away for free that you wouldn’t feel comfortable charging someone for later!

I’m not against this approach.  Eventually though, I think people that buy books are going to stop looking at free/99 cent ones because they’ll get tired of wading through books they’re uninterested in, and people that don’t buy books at all probably won’t be convinced to buy the three dollar sequel, no matter how much they liked the first one that they got for free.

Conversely, coming from a position in traditional publishing, did you see anything self-publishing can offer that traditional publishing hasn’t figured out yet?
I think traditionally published authors can definitely learn a thing or two from indies in terms of online retailers. Independent authors dissect Amazon and other retailers constantly.  How do they rank books?  How do they recommend books?  How can I make my book more likely to show up when xx phrase is searched?  How does having a new book affect my old books?  What does a sales ranking of xx,xxx mean in terms of books sold?  Nobody but Amazon knows exactly how they rank and recommend books, but there are ways to make yourself more likely to be seen by the right audience.

In terms of traditional publishing at large, I think it’s the ebook royalty rate that is really going to change things.  It has to be competitive enough to keep authors with a large fan base from leaving to produce their own backlist and frontlist ebooks.  But it has to work in a long term model, where publishers will eventually make most of their money from digital sales.  Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how the standard rate changes.

What advice would you give writers who are considering self-publishing their work?
Produce the best products you can, figure out a marketing strategy instead of putting out tweets willy-nilly, take the time to analyze what has and hasn’t worked for others, make sure that you’re not considering self-publishing for any of the wrong reasons, and be patient!
Huge thanks to Tracy! Tomorrow we will briefly transition out of self-publishing and hear from Karen Hooper, who will tell us about what it’s like to sign with an indie press when you don’t have an agent.

4 thoughts on “Interview with Tracy Marchini

  1. Tracy, this was fantastic! I love reading more about your experiences in the self-publishing realm, and it really sounds like you hare having a great time and love where you are at. That is so, so important. You're working so hard, too! There are a few things you've released and are about to release that I have missed! I'm excited to read more of your work. It's so fun and vibrant, just like you!


  2. This is very insightful reading, thank you! Can I ask something? You said that you were your own publisher, how does that work? Do you need to fill out some forms with the government to incorporate or somesuch? Can you use a pseudonym to be your own publisher, or do you have to reveal your legal name?

    Shooting for the Moon


  3. This was a fascinating interview! Tracy, I enjoyed reading about your experiences working in traditional publishing, getting an agent and then experimenting with self-publishing. I found all the details about how you prepared your books for self-publishing extremely valuable. Thanks so much, Tracy and Sarah, for providing this interview!


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