POSTCARDS ON WRITING 1: Romance and Self-Publishing

Posted in Postcards on Writing, Writing


You’ve spent several months (maybe years) slaving on a novel. Now it’s done and you want to get it published.

The question is: how?

Well, there’s the traditional route. In the Philippines, it’s finding out which publishers accept manuscript submissions, what kind of writing they’re looking for, and what their submission guidelines are (Summit Media, for example, asks authors to email the first two chapters along with a summary of the story). Once you submit, you cross your fingers and hope they get back to you.

 

Beatrix Potter wrote, illustrated, and published her books herself--that is, until a publisher finally picked up her work (and we all know how wildly popular and enduring her Peter Rabbit books have become).

In countries like England and the United States, it’s a little more complicated:

1) You send the first few chapters of your novel to a literary agent, and hope that he/she will be interested in representing your work (some writers can experience numerous rejections at this stage–some friends of mine were rejected more than ten times before they found an agent). If the agent writes you back and says he’s interested, you’ll sign a contract that says you agree to him representing your work (some of the bigger publishers do not accept submissions that do not come from agents).

2) Your agent helps you prepare your manuscript (this could take months of editing and rewriting) before he/she submits it to various publishing houses that might be interested in it. Again, a writer can experience numerous rejections–Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected 25 times before it was finally taken on by a publisher.

3) If a publisher is interested, your manuscript will then be assigned a team of people who will edit your manuscript, design the cover, plan how it is going to be marketed and distributed, etc. etc. etc. (for a clearer idea on how much time, politics, and people are involved in releasing a book, read this New York Times article called Waiting for It.)

As you can see, going the traditional route can be an odyssey that can last years–it’s a rewarding journey, but one that requires a thick skin to survive rejections, and a mental and emotional endurance that enables you to go the distance in the grueling refining process which involves brutal editing, rewriting, and bouts of self-doubt. Think of it as a marathon, or hard-core Kung Fu training, where you have to stand under pounding waterfalls and keep punching, kicking, sweating, and grunting until you finally emerge stronger, faster, and (hopefully) tough enough to win the fight.

Rejected by publishers twenty-nine times, this dark, beautiful fantasy is now a classic.

Do you really have to go through all this? Not necessarily.

While I did go on this crazy odyssey, from losing my manuscript to traveling far from home (a story you can read about here), young author Mina V. Esguerra decided to go another route: self publishing.

While Mina has work that’s traditionally published (some years ago, she became one of Summit Media’s authors of light romance) she decided to try publishing work online too.

Mina V. Esguerra: successful author, new mom, and the Philippine's spokesperson for online publishing.

“I had a finished/edited manuscript just sitting in my hard drive for months.” Mina says. “During this time (April 2010) I started looking up alternative ways to publish, and happened to see a news item about Amazon’s Kindle Store opening up to international authors. So I signed up and my book (Fairy Tale Fail) was for sale as a Kindle ebook within days. The response was encouraging, but slow going. And then the Amazon magic kicked in a few months later (October 2010) and sales started going up, without any marketing effort on my part. In one year, that single book sold over 5,000 copies — which of course exceeded my very modest expectations.”

Now Mina is President and Chief Executive Officer of Bronze Age Media, Inc., a company that helps writers publish their work online. They also offer services like book promotion, copy editing, and book cover design.

“Bronze Age Media is a company I started with my husband and our friends.” Mina says. “Our projects have been various training events and publications, and this year we started focusing on providing these same resources for writers. Author At Once is a workshop we organized to orient writers on how to publish their own work. We’re having another Author At Once in June and a Chapter 2 is coming up soon after. Our site, bronzeage.ph/authoratonce, will have the details.”

I attended the first Author at Once workshop with my friend Pierra Calasanz-Labrador (one of the brains behind Miss Match, a fun, addictive site about style that you should visit). Aside from wanting to show Mina some support–I met her some months ago and admired her personal story–I thought it would be helpful to learn a thing or two about publishing’s new frontier.

The first Author at Once workshop, on a rainy day. It was a lovely group of people (one of them even got on a plane just to attend the workshop). That's me on the far left, clutching a green bag. Pierra is next to me in stripes. Mina, in black, is the fifth from the left in the row behind us.

A few days later I asked Mina some questions about writing and publishing online:

Tell us about how you started writing, and the kind of books you enjoyed reading.

As a teenager I devoured Sweet Valley, Nancy Drew, Christopher Pike, and Sweet Dreams books. The writing really took off when I read enough Sweet Dreams titles to notice the formula, which led to creating stories in that mold. I have six published romance novels out, and all of them still use that same formula, to be honest.

What genre do you enjoy writing in the most?

Romance is my comfort zone. I like that my main problem when writing is how to create happy situations.

Have you encountered some literary snobbery from other writers regarding the genre you write? What advice do you have for writers who might encounter this kind of snobbery?

The writers I know have actually been very supportive, but I’m aware of the possibility of snobbery. I try not to let it affect me though, and remind myself that everyone’s a snob about something. And no amount of effort can make snobs change their minds. For example — as a Buffy fan, you can imagine what opinion I have of Twilight and any other vampire series post-1996. I do it too, so I can’t fault people for having their own thing.

One of the series Mina grew up reading (it's hard to resist those vintage, painted Nancy Drew covers).

You’ve said before that having more readers was more important to you than having more sales. Could you tell us why, and how this has affected how you market your books online?

In theory, I could earn more from each sale of an ebook if I priced it higher than the $0.99 it is now. But that might also mean that fewer people will buy it, which defeats the goal I set for myself — that I want to be read by as many people as possible (success measured in downloads, not dollars). So that means all of my indie books are super affordable, and I still regularly do giveaways. I don’t mind giving several copies of one title for free, because it leads to people buying the other books.

You’ve gone both routes–traditional publishing (in the Philippines) and online publishing. What would you say the pros and cons are of each one?

Traditional publishing [in the Philippines] – Great for reaching Filipino readers and my relatives who are still mainly bookstore dwellers and paperback fans. Not so great for reaching an international audience, but this is starting to change, because traditional publishers are getting in on the ebook action too. Online publishing – Great environment to publish independently, because you can spend next to nothing to get started. No printing fees, no shipping, no stock and space issues. Definitely the way to go if you want to reach the widest audience possible. But it is a lot of work sometimes, keeping up with every device and format and dealing with the skeptics.

Mina's latest ebook tells the story of college sophomore Hannah, who is recruited by The God of the Sun (presently posing as an impossibly handsome senior at an exclusive college outside Metro Manila) to fill in the Goddess of Love's shoes--because the goddess has, very inconsiderately, gone AWOL.

Say you got into an argument with a ‘purist’ who insists that traditional publishing is the only way to go–what would you tell him that might change his mind?

Hi, purist. Your book is great. 1. Don’t you want more people to read it, all over the world? Maybe you don’t like reading ebooks or don’t own a Kindle, but millions of people do. 2. Don’t you want 100%? (Or at least, 100% of what Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple etc will be giving you?) 3. Don’t you want control? Over how many editions come out, and how the cover looks, and how much the book costs, and how many free copies people get?

What does a writer need to do in order to publish online?

Technically, you only really need an Amazon account to start. But I think even before that, a writer should make sure that her manuscript is in the best shape it can be, before putting it up for the interwebs to see.

 

MINA ON HOW TO GET WRITING DONE  

Where and what hours do you usually like to write? Do you write on paper first or do you put everything on a computer?

I am quite techie about this now. I outline on Evernote, write the draft on either my laptop or iPad and sync it to Dropbox so I can add to it from any device I happen to be using. This has been helpful because I am juggling so many things right now and I write every free chance I get, and sometimes that’s fifteen minutes in a coffee shop or while in line for a taxi.

Do you like to work on one thing at a time or on several things at once? Would you say you’re an organized writer (you plot everything out, make outlines) or are you more organic (you have an idea and see where it takes you)?

I outline. I have to, because I’ve tried the “letting it flow” method but outlining seems to be the only way to get me to finish anything. And I’m actually trying to write two different things now, which I’m finding to be difficult.

Do you listen to music while writing and read books in between, or do you prefer working in a kind of vacuum?

Yes I listen to music! Music helps keep my writing consistent within a book, if that makes sense. Some scenes from Interim Goddess of Love are set (in my mind at least) to Morcheeba. I try to read even when I’m in writing mode, but I read less. It’s because I feel guilty when I read and know I should be writing.

How long does it take you to finish writing a book?

Anywhere from a month to six, if I’ve outlined it already.

You’ve mentioned that you think professional editing is important in getting a writer’s work ready for publishing. Why? What are the dangers of self-editing?

It’s hard enough to finish a manuscript and have it all make sense — taking on the task of editing on top of that can make a writer stressed out, and careless. I say, if you’re a writer, focus your energy on creating and finishing. A great editor will be able to look at your work and tell you if it works, where you’ve slipped up, and how it can be better.

What advice can you give writers who are struggling to finish a story or a novel?

It doesn’t have to be perfect! It just has to be finished. Perfection can be the second novel’s goal, if you want to be extra hard on yourself. Also, identify what’s holding you back, and work around it. My block used to be not knowing how to end a story, and I worked around it by thinking of the ending first.

Tell us about the books you have online and in the bookstores, and how we can get them.

Thank you! My romance novels in local bookstores (published by Summit Books) are My Imaginary Ex, No Strings Attached, and That Kind of Guy. The ones I published and are available online are Fairy Tale Fail, Love Your Frenemies, and Interim Goddess of Love.

Find out more about Mina’s books on her blog, Publishing in Pajamas.

For more on writing, check out the other Postcards on Writing posts, or How I Lost My Novel.

2 Comments

  1. Aug 30, 2012

    Your website is such a fun and light read! It’s very helpful for aspiring writers. I once read a short feature about you in a magazine. I think it was Women’s Health. And I got really inspired about your story- losing your novel, writing it again and an agent from England calling you in the wee hours to tell you you got the award. That must be fantastic! I can’t wait for your novel to finally get published. Keep posting 😉

    • Aug 31, 2012

      Thank you Tat! Appreciate the kind words ;D

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *