Interview with Michelle Davidson Argyle

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My week of non-traditional publishing alternatives (as I am now calling self & indie publishing from now on) is coming to a close. Michelle Davidson Argyle is a name you’ve heard on the blog before. She’s the artist behind my awesome Glass Cases banner, and designed the covers of Tracy Marchini’s self-published titles. Michelle is also a writer of contemporary and literary fiction, and fantasy. Having started with self-publishing, she moved on to indie with Rhemalda (which Karen Amanda Hooper told us all about yesterday!).

Tell me about Cinders. What made you decide to self-publish it?

I wrote Cinders at a time when I was really frustrated with publishing and writing. I had quit my blog at the time and decided I wanted to write something just for me with no restraints, no goals, really, except to entertain myself. Cinders started as a short story and then grew into a novella. Halfway through writing it I decided I would self-publish it because as a contributor of The Literary Lab blog, we had a lot of readers asking us about self-publishing – and we really didn’t know what to tell them. 

So in a lot of ways, I wrote Cinders to self-publish it. I knew it stood a very small chance of making it traditionally. Agents don’t often look at novellas, especially as a debut piece, and publishers don’t see them as huge money-makers, either, so self-publishing seemed like a natural decision for the book. I am a photographer and love to design things, so the cover was a shoe-in, as well. I had a lot to learn, but the path has been a great one. 

At the time I published Cinders, I never intended to self-publish other works (and I haven’t so far, although I do have plans for a short story collection).
Did you query agents before deciding to self-publish? If so, how many/for how long?
I queried exactly two agents before self-publishing, but that was two years before I self-published, and I wasn’t very serious about it. I queried an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and Nathan Bransford, both for my contemporary YA novel, The Breakaway, which is now coming out with Rhemalda Pubilshing in 2012. 

I’m embarrassed when I look back on those two queries. They were terribly done. I didn’t know what I was doing, and the book was far from ready. I knew that, too, and quickly changed my strategy to strengthening my writing. I knew it would be a few years before I was ready to publish.
What self-publishing service did you use?
I used CreateSpace.
Did you have to pay for their services?
My experience has been excellent with CreateSpace. Their quality is decent and their process is easy to use. CreateSpace is completely free unless you want to use their Pro Plan, which currently costs $39.00 up front and is $5.00 a year after that on each title. The Pro Plan gives you a larger royalty and brings the cost of your book way down. It was worth getting, at least for me. I think CreateSpace also offers services like editing and cover design and marketing for a fee. I didn’t use any of those services.
If I were to self-publish all my work exclusively, however, I would go with Lightning Source. They are a better fit for a long-term self-publishing career, and many small publishers (and even larger publishers for backlist titles, I’ve heard) use them.
Did you use outside editors for your work before self-publishing?
I contemplated hiring an editor for Cinders, but found out that one of my writing acquaintances online used to work as an editor. She volunteered to edit Cinders at no cost. She did an excellent job. I also put the book through extensive copyediting and several rounds of readers I’ve learned to trust and work well with over the years.
What did you do to publicize your book? How do you reach your target audience?
I gave away a lot of free books (print and ebook) as part of my blog tour, which lasted for one week when the book released. I’ve held contests, done interviews, and had a small launch party in my home. Reaching my target audience has been difficult, honestly. A lot of readers assume the book is young adult, but it’s more literary adult fantasy than anything else. For this reason the book has received some nasty reviews and misunderstanding because readers expected something completely different (namely a Disney fairy tale). I’m fine with that, but it’s made me think a lot about target audiences and book presentation.
Can you give a picture of how it sold? What percentage of royalties did you receive?
I receive 70% royalties on ebook Kindle copies sold through Amazon (in the U.S.) and a varying amount on print copies. CreateSpace charges a set fee on each sale depending on the page count, plus they take 40% of the list price. I currently have Cinders for sale at $6.99 for the print copy. This means I make $1.14 per sale on the U.S. site, but I have altered the price several times, so that amount has changed since I first released the book.
To date, I’ve sold 520 copies of Cinders in 14 months and made approximately $1,300. This includes all sales, including by-hand print book sales, ebook sales, and online print book sales through all channels. However, I’ve spent approximately $1,600 on the book (buying print copies, shipping free copies out, printing bookmarks, business cards, throwing a launch party, paying for the cover, the list goes on and on), so I haven’t actually made anything on the book yet.
To be completely honest, some days the amount of books I’ve sold seems high, some days extremely low. For my first book, however, and considering the true genre and that I’ve only barely released my second novel through a publisher, I’m happy with how it has sold so far.
Were there any unexpected challenges in self-publishing, things you didn’t expect would be so hard?
The emotional rollercoaster, mostly. The stigma against self-publishing (and yes, I believe there is currently still a stigma and there always will be a stigma to some degree) made it hard for me to feel on the same level in my own circle of author friends who were going with agents and getting huge deals and hitting bestseller lists and all that jazz. I felt very small and very different and it was hard for me to get used to the fact that I’d only sell a few copies of my book a week when other self-published and traditionally published authors were reporting about selling hundreds a week. What was wrong with my book? The cover was professional, the writing phenomenal, the reviews high, and I was pushing it at a steady pace. Still, I think when I realized how hard it is to self-publish a book, market a book, and keep writing books at the same time, I knew self-publishing wasn’t for me. I needed someone backing me up, rooting me on, and helping me market, even if just a little. It might be awful to say I need that validation from a publisher, too, but it’s true.
In all honesty, I’m not cut out to run my own business entirely by myself (I’m not sure many authors are). It was too much to do and too emotionally draining. Traditional publishing has been just as much work, but I have a wonderful publisher who acts as a safety net, a friend, and a financial supporter of my work. It makes all the difference to me.
What advice would you give writers who are considering self-publishing their work?
Understand that self-publishing your work is not an easier road than traditional publishing. It might seem easier, but in the long run, it isn’t if you’re expecting the same results as a traditionally published author. I believe it all evens out in the end. For the amount of work and time an author puts into starting their own self-publishing venture—if done professionally—just as much time and work could go into querying and selling a book to a bigger publisher.
I think too many writers are jumping onto the self-publishing wagon for the wrong reasons. They are either fed up with the traditional system and want to avoid all that waiting and frustration, or they think they’ll be an exception and hit it big like some of the self-publishing success stories out there. Those in the middle who do their research, take the time and money to do things professionally, and have realistic expectations, are the ones who will be happiest, I think. I’m just sad when I see someone self-publishing with any regret in their decision. It definitely needs to be something that is 100% yes!

You’ve since moved on to Rhemalda Publishing to publish Monarch. What made you decide to make the move to a traditional publisher?
Well, as I explained above, I never intended to keep self-publishing my work. If anything, I was going to self-publish two other novellas to go with Cinders, but I had no plans to self-publish anything after that, especially my longer works. I had Monarch waiting in the wings, close to querying, and when an author I had no connections to contacted me about reviewing Cinders and ended up loving the book, I looked into her traditional publisher (Rhemalda Publishing) and decided to submit Monarch to them.  Small publishers had been getting some good buzz at that time with Tinkers (a novella with a small press) winning the Pulitzer prize. I thought Monarch would be a good fit with a small publisher. I was right!
Did you consider trying to get an agent again to help guide you with signing a contract? If not, do you have a lawyer to handle them for you?
I did not consider getting an agent or a lawyer at that point in time, no.  The author I knew with Rhemalda Publishing had hired a lawyer to look at her contract, and since we had become friends by that time, she answered a lot of questions for me. My contract was very similar and I did not feel the need to spend money on a lawyer when Rhemalda was so open to answering any questions and negotiating certain items if I wanted. I’ve talked with several other Rhemalda authors since then who have hired lawyers to go over their contract for them and not one of them has had issues or any large concerns. I’ve signed two more contracts with Rhemalda now and I’m happy with all three.
Finally, tell us about Monarch. What other projects do you have lined up with Rhemalda?
Monarch is my adult thriller about a CIA spy who’s set up for murder and has only one place to go—an old flame named Lilian Love who owns the Monarch Inn. The book is told from three points of view and centers around shooting bullets, love, lies, and of course, butterflies! You’ll have to read it to find out how that all comes about.
As far as future projects, my contemporary young adult novel, The Breakaway, comes out fall 2012 from Rhemalda. It’s about a girl who’s kidnapped by a family of jewel thieves—and she’s not sure she wants to leave them, especially the one she’s falling in love with.
Then Bonded, my collection of fairy-tale themed novellas (including Cinders) will be released from Rhemalda spring of 2013. It includes a continuation (Cinders), a retelling (Thirds), and a prequel (Scales).
I’m very excited and very happy with my career and choices so far. It has been an exciting road! Thank you for inviting me to this interview, Sarah!
HUGE thanks to Michelle, and to all of the featured authors this week. Also, thanks to my readers. I hope you all learned a lot this week, and see that publishing is not black or white. 

I, for one, learned to let go of some of my prejudices against self-publishing. It’s not all angry rejectees and wannabe millionaires looking to “stick it to The Man.” There are real people with real talent who put in real effort to get their stories read, and isn’t that what we all do? There’s certainly room for self-publishing, indie publishing, and traditional publishing to live amongst each other. There’s no right way or wrong way; just the best way that works for you and your projects. 

No blog post on Monday, but we’ll be back to our regular Story Time schedule on Wednesday. Hope you all enjoy the long weekend!

Interview with Karen Amanda Hooper

There’s a bit of a hubbub about the terms “self-publishing” vs. “indie publishing.” Many self-pubbed writers refer to themselves as indie – implying they are independently publishing their work on their own. It’s “independent” in its truest definition. I understand where it comes from, but to me, the words can’t be interchangeable because the term “indie publishing” already exists. It refers to being published by an independent press, who is an established publisher but not a “Big 6” style corporate machine. 

Still, when you boil it all down I guess it’s just semantics. The term “indie” is changing, and since words develop new meanings all the time, I won’t argue with self-pubbed writers who call themselves indie. But! For the purposes of this blog (since it’s mine), indie will mean non-corporate and self-pub will mean self-pub. Thanks 🙂

Which brings me to Karen Amanda Hooper. Karen is not a self-published author, but rather an indie author in the old-school sense of the word. She doesn’t have an agent and while there are several independent publishers who won’t take unsolicited material, Karen found one who did. This week isn’t just about self-publishing, but about other viable options that go against tradition. I hope you all benefit from hearing her story, and learn about a third option you might not have considered before.

What do you write?
YA that blurs the line between fantasy and paranormal, and, of course, there’s always romance involved. My debut novel, Tangled Tides, is about an island girl turned into a mermaid against her will who discovers she’s the only soul who can save a world of merfolk, selkies, and sirens from becoming extinct—including herself and the sea monster she falls head over fins for.
Did you query agents before deciding to publish without one? If so, how many/for how long?
I did query agents before submitting to Rhemalda. I had to open my Agent Cupcakes folder (we call them cupcakes instead of rejections because they’re easier to stomach with a sweet name) and count the actual number. Here are my stats: 
Agents queried, 78 total. That was over a 10 month period in 2009. I received quite a few requests, a lot of form cupcakes, some nice personalized cupcakes, and a couple agents who requested the full but I never heard back from them (and yes, I did check in).

How did you hear about Rhemalda? What made you go with them?
Crazy story actually (sorry it’s so long). I shelved this manuscript in early 2010 after getting no offers of representation. By springtime I was querying a totally different project when a USA Today article came out saying how mermaids were the summer paranormal trend. A few writer friends sent me the link saying I should self-publish my mermaid story. I took it as a sign from the universe and figured why not? I never planned on querying it again so why not throw it out there while mermaids were popular. I contacted a couple friends who had self-published and asked for advice on how to educate myself on the process. One of those friends was Michelle Davidson Argyle. She had read some of my story and told me to submit it to her publisher. At the time I really thought I had no shot, but I submitted anyway. A few weeks later I got The Call. I was standing in NYC waiting for a cab outside of the RWA National Con (we were on our way to an agency cocktail party where a friend was about to sign with her agent). Rhemalda told me they loved my story and wanted to discuss some things with me to see if we were a good fit for each other. I wanted to scream with joy from the rooftops but I couldn’t steal my friend’s thunder. (She was literally minutes away from signing with her awesome agent!) So Rhemalda and I scheduled a phone call for the next day where we discussed lots of details, including a new title (thank goodness) and their vision and mine. I sat on the floor in a quietish hallway of Newark airport talking to Emmaline at Rhemalda for over an hour. They genuinely loved my story, they wanted to rush it to publication, and they made me feel like family. By the time we hung up I was so happy and excited that I called my mom in tears.
Do they have their own editors? If not, did you use any outside editors before submitting to them?
Yes, they have two fabulous editors, Kara Klotz and Diane Dalton. Diane is the editor for Tangled Tides.

What are they doing to promote your titles? 
Currently they have a Goodreads giveaway for U.S. readers and they’re hosting an International eBook giveaway as well. We’ve discussed promoting Tangled Tides through Goodreads and Facebook ads, possibly doing fun stuff like reading and signing at the Mermaid Convention in Las Vegas next summer, and hopefully signing at some writing conferences as well. And, of course, ARCs, a blog tour and exposure through Rhemalda’s website.

Do they have a formal contract? If so, did you have a lawyer review it before you signed?
They do have a contract and I did have a lawyer look it over. He had me question a couple points and Rhemalda patiently answered any and all of my questions and explained everything in detail until I was completely comfortable signing. They even added a special clause to accommodate my unique situation of signing one manuscript while another manuscript was still out with agents. Their contract is very author friendly.
Is Rhemalda also handling foreign, audio, merchandising, and film rights? Who has control of the subrights of your work?
Rhemalda handles the foreign and audio rights. I retained merchandising and film. If anyone approaches Rhemalda about subsidiary rights then we’ll negotiate a separate contract at that time.

Do you think you’ll still try to get an agent even after your experience with Rhemalda? Why or why not?
My honest answer: I don’t know. I always envisioned having an agent for my first deal and as a long-term teammate to guide and advise me throughout my career, but for now, the universe has led me down a different path. My experience with Rhemalda has been incredible so far. If all keeps going well then I’ll submit the sequel of Tangled Tides to them. However, a few agents and another publisher have a different manuscript of mine, so time will tell what will happen with that project. Rhemalda made it clear that they will be supportive of whichever route I end up taking.
What advice would you give writers who are considering finding a publisher without an agent?

It can be done. If I did it, anyone can. Oh, and expect the unexpected. It can come out of nowhere like a freight train and you’ve got to be ready to ride. 

For those of you who don’t know (and you might not because it was seeeeecret for a while), Karen is also part of a super cool YA blog team called YA Confidential, so do go check that out. 

Thanks again to Karen for sharing her publication story! Tomorrow we will end the week of interviews with Michelle Davidson Argyle, who has now been mentioned by two of our featured writers this week. (Not to mention she’s responsible to my awesome Glass Cases banner!) See you then.