Jennifer Widemire Smith uses custom publishing as an alternative to traditional and self-publishing. Read more from the perspective of a new author who is rapidly learning how the business works.
1. Tell me briefly about your latest book – what is it about and what motivated you to write it?
A Time To Serve is a fictional military/romance story about the life of a US Navy SEAL, named Jefferies. It’s an authentic look into a life governed by ethos. I wanted to explore the powerful dynamics that relationships play between team guys and how they relate to the civilian world. As well as romantically, when Evie Sinclaire disrupts that dynamic. Jefferies and Evie collide with each other and her presence ups the ante for him. The book never strays from Jefferies’ perspective. The reader gets immersed as he deploys into combat. And yet, it is every bit about Evie’s determination to build a life she never expected, either. Don’t let the romance title throw you. This is not soft porn romance.
As to my motivation it was originally a journaling exercise. I needed an outlet to place my thoughts and feelings of empathy for a friend on a hard topic. As creativity took over, Jefferies and Evie emerged and the story took on a life of its own. My husband discovered my fictional little world. I didn’t think he’d like it and hadn’t told him I was doing it, but to my surprise he loved it and harassed me for days. “What comes next, Jen? I really liked the conversation between Jefferies and Russo. It made me think, “Okay, seriously Jen, my mind is going nuts. What happens next!?” I may have finished it just to appease him…
2. How long did it take you to write from start to finish?
Three years. Writing takes as long as it takes. I was a chick writing about SEALs using an all-male-driven dialogue, writing in a style I’d never tried my hand at. It took a while to learn, but the payoff of doing a job well done is worth it.
3. How have your sales been?
My personal site sales have been good, I’ve sold three out of five boxes of books. But it’s hard to gauge. I’m a brand new act. My book was released the same week the country went into lockdown. Amazon doesn’t exactly give you daily sales reports and I haven’t made it yet to the 190 days to get paid. Not being allowed to throw a launch party or book signing has been rough. Maybe I can come back and answer again in six months.
4. Self-publishing versus traditional publishing. Which do you prefer, and what are the pros and cons of each?
I chose neither! A friend and fellow author I trust introduced me to his publisher, Larry Carpenter at Clovercroft Publishing House. They offer custom publishing options. Upon submitting my manuscript and a call-in meeting with Larry to discuss it, I decided to go with custom publishing.
Traditional publishing means they purchase your work, pay you a royalty (if it sells within three months), then they move on. Personally, I think this is a fabulous asset once you are an established author. It is immensely valuable for keeping an author’s time focused on producing more work to sell. However, there are a lot of pitfalls when you’re new and still getting the lay of the land with a zero or next to zero audience.
Self-publishing means you’re on you own and that isolation often spells disaster. You don’t know what you don’t know, getting your product into a bookstore is hard, yet possible. There’s a very old saying I learned along my journey from the SEALs: “If you want to go fast go by yourself. If you want to go far take a team.” Self publishing can get your work to market quickly, but a team who knows the publishing business will take your work farther. And that’s why I chose custom publishing.
5. What does custom publishing entail?
Custom publishing is where you hire the publishing house, and keep all creative work as your own product. I keep far more of the profit than a small royalty fee (all the pros to self-publishing). While I also get a team of highly knowledgeable industry people who are a phone call or email away. A team that will take my book to market and teach me the business. They handle pitching my book to bookstores, I handle creative marketing campaigns, put myself out there for book signings and develop relationships with readers (all the pros to traditional publishing).
I had to come up with my own funds to invest in myself—always a great thing. It’s not a tremendous amount of money (in fact I think self-publishing might cost more after it’s all said and done) but it’s enough to make you ask yourself, “How badly do you want to be an author? How much money are you willing to invest to become one?” Being an author is not for the faint of heart. I can tell you being a non-military chick writing an authentic military book on some of the toughest warrior elites, gave me plenty of anxiety and moments of pause. After ending the call with Larry Carpenter I sat with my notes on estimated costs, looked at traditional publishing and costs of self-publishing, and asked myself, “How badly do I want this?” My answer was, “a whole helluva lot.”
6. What sort of networking have you done as an author, and what have been the results?
The same friend who introduced me to my publisher invited me onto his podcast which was tremendous fun. The result was Amazon saying people who have bought my book have also bought his. Another friend with a community based magazine platform interviewed me to celebrate my book launching virtually. I picked up followers and sales and a lot of word of mouth.
Developing relationships with people you genuinely like and value is always a 10-fold return on investment. And everyone of those network friends are people whose work have impacted me or work I have promoted through the years and still promote on my social media accounts and websites. Treat your network with respect and always return the favor.
7. Are there any marketing or networking techniques you’ve intentionally avoided or discontinued, and if so, why?
When I first started marketing the experts all said, “Offer your book for free in exchange for an email.” I thought, “I didn’t do all this for free.” But as I began to understand the value of an email address I changed my mind. That email is liquid gold that keeps on pouring. I now offer my digital copy for free with an email sign up.
I have several campaigns for social media that I alternate to gather more. Social media is notorious for only getting email conversions, not book sales, and one expert put it like this: “Amazon is not social media. Those who will buy it, will still buy it.” Those who aren’t looking for it but might be interested will sign up for free and if you’re good, you’ll hook them. The email capture offers long-term success that compounds in value. The book sale is short term success. I want a long career, and I am willing to patiently build my foundation. One email at a time.
Of course, book two becomes immensely more valuable in this scenario, which I’m already working on. Now, if your only goal is to produce one book you might need to seek other marketing advice from mine.
8. What are the most important things you’ve learned about publishing that you didn’t know when you started out?
How easy it is to dream big and how truly difficult it is to become an author. You really have to earn it and it will take as long as it takes! The writing is only the beginning.
9. If you could do one thing differently in publishing your books, what would it be?
There were plenty of times I flopped. Made mistakes. I’m still making them and learning, however to change them would erase what I’ve learned. The failures are just as important as the successes. The rush to deadline is just as important as the smooth ride. It’s all valuable as part of the learning process. So nothing. I’d change nothing, for everything has had value.
10. New authors face the challenge of getting their books into the hands of readers. What advice do you have for an author just starting out?
I’m still an author just starting out, but I suppose my advice would be this: Writing is a career that requires investment with no guarantee of outcome. The outcome will be directly affected by what you put into your work. Writers write. Authors market. Learn well!
11. What other projects are you currently working on?
I have several. I’m working on book two – A Time To Protect (Evie and Jefferies’s story has more to tell) – and a few others. Marketing A Time To Serve is an entire project in and of itself that’s completely different than writing it. I’m also a Mom! All these projects I only get to do in my spare time or when I bribe the kids to give me a few uninterrupted moments.
I have often been caught talking to myself in the kitchen as I make them lunch. Technically, I was talking to Jefferies, when my kids walked into the room. They think it’s hilarious and they try to listen. My book is very much for adults, not that it stopped either of my kids from grabbing their own copies and saying, “When I’m old enough, this one is mine.” I think they find my writing inspirational. Even as I write this I’ve been handed a nine-page, hand-written play script my 9 year old daughter has written. My 10 year old son wants my cover as a poster for his wall.
12. What type of writing style do you employ in your books? Narration? Deep perspective? First, second, third person?
This is probably my favorite topic to discuss. I employ deep third perspective using show, not tell.
Jefferies scanned his sector looking for signs of movement—a curtain pulled back, livestock rattled by an unfamiliar presence. Something. There were curtains and livestock, but no people. No dust clouds indicating a car coming up the road. Everything was quiet. Too quiet.
‘Think everyone’s at prayer?’ Remy asked.
Jefferies started to speak, but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Remy handed him a water bottle, and he took a swig. It tasted like melted plastic, the water only managing to alert him to how much sand was in his mouth, as he felt it crunch between his teeth. It was too hot to afford to waste a drop, so he swallowed, sand and all.
What did you see? Could you feel his tension? Did your mind conjure up the feeling of being parched? Did you cringe? Notice I didn’t tell you who he was or where he was, and yet could you get an intuitive sense of what he might be doing?
Did your mind fill in the details? I didn’t give you an information dump. No narrator giving you more information than the character himself. The only purpose the narration serves in my work is to describe what we would be consciously aware of but not actively thinking or processing. It’s a running inner dialogue of what we experience with our five senses.
As the reader is pulled in, the information is revealed but only when it is natural for Jefferies to do so. It’s one of the hardest forms of writing and requires a lot more word count and creativity. However, when used well it allows the reader to have an immersive experience, feeling what the character feels, sees, smells, hears, etc.
13. If you could market your brand – not just one particular book, but your overall brand of writing – in one sentence, what would it be?
Authentic and relational. I want my readers left feeling like they just walked a mile in my character’s shoes.
14. How can readers learn more about your books?
By visiting my website, JenniferWidemireSmith.com