Susanne Matthews has had negative experiences with traditional publishers, but has learned valuable lessons along the way. She shares them here in this detailed interview.
1. Tell me briefly about your latest book – what is it about and what motivated you to write it?
My most recent release is Murder & Mistletoe. It’s a Christmas-themed romantic suspense set today, that deals with reuniting two branches of a family separated after the American Civil War—the rich Kaynes of Georgia and the middle-class Kaynes of Northern New York. Not everyone in the family is happy with the idea of sharing their current riches, as well as missing pirate treasure hidden somewhere in the house. One member of the family determines to get rid of the newest Kayne while another falls in love with her and vows to keep her safe despite the attempts on her life.
I decided to write the story after I got my DNA results back last summer. There were things I knew would be there since I had a fairly complete family tree, but there were also a few surprises. Among these were the fact that some members of my family, Acadians, were deported to Louisiana by the British in the mid-eighteenth century, meaning I may have some American family I don’t even know exists. How would they feel about having a French-Canadian cousin?
2. How have your sales been?
Disappointing is the best way to put it, but I have had a few thousand pages read through Kindle Unlimited, and the few reviews I have are positive.
3. You’ve used both self-publishing and traditional publishing. What are some of the pros and cons of both?
This is a hard question to answer because I believe I got into the writing game at its most
unstable time in modern history. On the pro side: to this day, a traditional publisher, especially a well-known and well-respected one, brings a sense of legitimacy to your writing in the eyes of a large number of people. To many, even in this digital society, you aren’t a real writer unless you publish paperback or hardcover books, available in bookstores.
Traditional publishers take a lot of the grunt work out of publishing, but unless they are a big house, they don’t put your books in brick and mortar stores either. They do provide the editor, the cover artist, and look after the format for the cover release. They may send out copies to reviewers and look into some marketing for the book, but on the con side, they may not see the story the way you do, and they have the last word on edits and covers. A so-so cover can ruin a book’s chances at attracting readers, something a new writer has to do better than an old established one. Some publishers may provide you with paperback and ARC copies for promotion, but many don’t.
As an indie author, one of the biggest pros is the fact that you control your story. No one can change or alter it without your say so. You have the last word. Unfortunately, all of the work and costs associated with publishing are yours as well. You need to find your own editor. While there are many good ones out there, they can be expensive—you get what you pay for. You also need a cover designer. I’ve been fortunate to find a professional designer who shares my vision for my stories and whose covers are eye-catching. With time and effort, if you are artistically gifted, you can learn to make your own covers. But never forget, for new authors, covers attract new readers. Once the book is ready, you need to format it and decide where you want to distribute it—wide, with a number of venues, or with one vendor. I’ve chosen to use Amazon in order to gain access to Kindle Unlimited. Regardless of the choices you make, all of those costs are yours, but so are the profits after the retailer gets his cut.
Whether you use a traditional publisher or self-publish, promotion and marketing are your responsibility. A big publisher may do some of this, but most will ask you to provide a marketing plan when you sign the contract, and that plan is at your time and expense, not theirs.
4. You’ve had some unfortunate experiences with traditional publishers. Talk a little about that, and what lessons authors should take away from your experience.
As P.T. Barnum is credited with saying, there’s a sucker born every minute, and as a new author, that applied to me. After selling my first book to a reputable publisher, I wanted to get more of my work published sooner rather than later and believed that putting my eggs in different baskets was a good thing. At one point I had six different publishers and thought I was on my way. What a naïve fool I was. When something seems too good to be true, it is. I signed contracts with three, reasonably new, small publishers who convinced me that we would rise to fame and fortune together.
At first, everything was great. But then, royalty payments were late and eventually
stopped coming. Sales were still happening, but the publishers were unreachable. When we finally did get through to two of them—not at the same time but within months of one another—they apologized and claimed they’d been ill. I believed them that the royalties would come, because I’m an honest individual and couldn’t imagine they were lying. In truth, both were thieves who destroyed dreams and kept hard-earned royalties.
The only decent thing they did was eventually reversing the rights to the books so that the authors could republish. I was luckier than most since my earnings were much less than theirs. The third publisher fought valiantly to keep going, but in the end, succumbed to the economy and went bankrupt. She did try to pay out as many of the royalties as she could, and reverted the rights before declaring bankruptcy.
A fourth publisher simply did nothing to promote the books or even provide quality editing and covers. As soon as I could, I withdrew my books from them. I revised one of the books, did a proper editing, and got it a new cover. Since then, it has sold better than it did during the three years it was with the publisher.
My first and best publisher was bought out by one of the big five who promised great things for us, but whose sole purpose was to eliminate the competition. As soon as the first year under new management was up, they closed the line and fired all of the original employees. They stopped any effort at publicizing the books, sending them into book obscurity. They did offer the rights back to any books published with them, but made it clear they weren’t interested in retaining either the authors or the books. We were little fish in the ocean, not worth bothering with, and they tossed us back out there without a second thought to our careers.
I do still have one publisher, which I hang on to. I have one book with them which I promote occasionally and they send me my quarterly payments. This publisher has a limited market, and the book would have to be completely rewritten to republish it, so it stays where it is—for now.
I will accept responsibility for what happened. I should’ve been more vigilant. I was greedy. I got a taste of the pie and wanted more. I’ve learned my lesson, and it’s made me shy of approaching any publishers or agents. One good thing did come from the disasters. I’ve made lifelong friends who continue to write and publish. Some are doing well, others are still scrambling to find publishers. Most, like me, are going the indie route and hoping things will improve in the future.
My advice to writers looking for publication the traditional way is to do your homework. Check out Editors and Predators. Make sure the publishing house has a good reputation. Talk to fellow authors who are published and ask them about their publishers. Most importantly, find an agent. The big, reputable publishing houses don’t accept manuscripts from authors without agents. There are a few who do, but your manuscript may never get read since they have thousands of submissions.
Also make sure you know who you are sending your manuscript to. If the editor is looking for a particular kind of book and yours doesn’t fit the formula, it will get rejected. Never send in a manuscript that doesn’t follow submission guidelines and isn’t
publication ready. That means you have to have it edited and vetted on your dime and hope for acceptance. There are millions of writers looking for publication out there. Unless you offer something truly unique, the odds aren’t good. That being said, if you write for the love of writing, nothing I say will tarnish your dream. Go for it. You could be the next one to make it big.
5. What sort of networking have you done as an author, and what have been the results?
I have joined a number of author groups, including RWA, Savvy Author, All Authors, and
Bookbub Partners. I’ve shared the ups and downs of publishing with them. The results have been that I know I’m not alone, and that’s comforting. I’ve made some excellent friends along the way, people who are as important to me as those I interact with in my ‘real’ life. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about various aspects of character development and writing dialog, which I’ve put to good use, as well as tips on how to grab your audience, write the perfect pitch and book blurb. I have a weekly blog and a newsletter I put out every couple of months. These have helped me grow my reader base, but the pace is slow.
6. Tell me about the marketing techniques you’ve used to sell your books. Which ones have been most successful?
To be completely honest, I am terrible at marketing. It is my weak point, and if I could afford to spend more on it, I would probably do better, but it’s a Catch 22. Low sales equals low income and restricts the marketing budget. I’ve used Facebook and Twitter, sent books out to reviewers and review sites, and have paid for some promotion. I post regularly on other Facebook sites and use Amazon to give away copies of my books, hoping for reviews.
I’ve been part of multi-author anthologies, multi-author book sales, Facebook launch parties, and Twitter tweet groups. I’ve bought ads in small magazines where I can afford the price, but to be honest, nothing has worked as well as I would like. The best tool I have is Kindle Unlimited where I’ve had lots of pages read even if sales are slow.
7. Are there any marketing or networking techniques you’ve intentionally avoided or discontinued, and if so, why?
The two things I won’t do again is pay for Facebook promotion—the cost didn’t generate the income I’d hoped—or put a book up for pre-sale for a long time before its release. The first time I did it there was some interest, but the last time, it was a bust. Today people want everything instantly, and preferably free. What I have done, after some soul searching, is make books available exclusively through Amazon where I could be part of Kindle Unlimited. Most of my income these days is generated not from sales but from pages read.
In terms of networking, I’ve avoided having more than one critique partner. With the need to promote so time consuming, it cuts into my time to write, something that is more difficult each year. I find it hard to properly critique—and not edit—someone else’s work. I don’t take criticism well. I never have, which was another issue for me with traditional publishing where the editor’s ideas collided with my values, morals, and vision. I find it hard to be honest with someone else, afraid I will hurt their feelings, and inadvertently impose my vision on them.
8. What are the most important things you’ve learned about publishing that you didn’t know when you started out?
The most important thing I’ve learned is that rejection is part and parcel of writing, whether it’s from a publisher who sees no value in your work, or from readers who don’t care to read what you’ve written, and it hurts. As a writer, you will have to grow a tough skin. If you’re writing in hopes of making money and getting rich, the deck is stacked against you.
Writing is hard work, far harder than I expected. It consumes you, and if you aren’t careful, important things can get lost. It’s like trying to be one of the popular kids, but having to fight against the mean guys and girls every step of the way. You keep getting knocked down, but you can’t help yourself from getting up, dusting yourself off, bandaging the cuts, and getting right back at it. There are times I say, “That’s it,” but then another story takes up residence in my head and the process starts all over again.
9. If you could do one thing differently in publishing your books, what would it be?
If I could do one thing differently, I would start writing sooner, at a far younger age, and try to find an agent with proven marketing experience. Sadly, very few are willing to take a chance on a writer who’s essentially at the end of her career because of age.
10. New authors face the obvious challenge of marketing their books, whether they go the indie or traditional publishing route. What advice do you have for an author just starting out?
Marketing is critical to success, whether you go with a traditional publisher or self-publish. If possible, try to take marketing courses at a local college, or maybe take marketing seminars online. Discover what you’re up against by knowing the nature of the beast. Marketing is definitely the most difficult challenge I face, not because I can’t do it, but because I don’t truly understand how it works. Things that succeed one month, won’t the next. The market is constantly changing and everything from mother nature to politics affects it. You’re a pawn to economic changes and social changes as well. It’s truly a guessing game.
11. What other projects are you currently working on?
Because I can’t not write, I have three new unpublished novels currently on the go. One is a Christmas romance that is almost complete and that I intend to send to a publisher—even knowing what I’ve been through, that dream of hitting the right one and doing well doesn’t die. I’m also working on a sci-fi novel which I wrote as my NaNo novel two years ago. It needs a lot of editing and polishing. Finally, I’m in the early stages of book two in my Canadiana series which traces the early years of Canada, my homeland.
As well, I intend to republish the five novels returned to me by my publisher as a result of the sale. I will get new covers made and revise the stories based on some of the comments I’ve read from their reviewers. Two of those books are contemporary romance novels. The other three are the first three books in what I’ve called the Harvester Saga. Once I get those back out on the market, I intend to write book four in the series.
12. If you could market your brand – not just one particular book, but your overall brand of writing – in one sentence, what would it be?
No one knows what fate will throw at you, but everyone deserves a happily ever after.
13. How can readers learn more about your books?