Holly Robinson is a great example of an author who has experienced both sides of the publishing coin. Holly has worked for many years as a journalist, essayist and ghostwriter, but her dream was always to have a book published. After several unsuccessful attempts, she decided, given her writing background, that she might have a chance of landing a book deal writing a non-fiction title. Her first published book was a memoir called THE GERBIL FARMER’S DAUGHTER. The book was well-received and Holly was delighted to call herself a ‘published author’, but it was a novel she really wanted to produce. Despite having a supportive and pro-active agent, she failed to generate interest from publishers for any of the fiction manuscripts she had written, so she decided to self publish, SLEEPING TIGERS. The success of this first foray into fiction helped her to secure a publishing deal for her third book THE WISHING HILL which was released earlier this year.
The folk at authoright spoke with Holly about her experiences of indie and traditional publishing, how she secured her first book deal, and why she chose to take a book deal for her latest title rather than go indie again.
You struggled to secure a book deal for any of your first five novels. Do you think you would you have gotten a deal for your memoir, THE GERBIL FARMER’S DAUGHTER, had it not been for your experience as a journalist and ghostwriter?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because my editor at Broadway Books, a division of Random House, told me that the title and concept of THE GERBIL FARMER'S DAUGHTER really helped her sell the book to the publisher, because nobody heard the title without first laughing and then asking, “Can that possibly be a true story?”. I hadn't done much work as a ghostwriter at that point, but my prior experience as a journalist helped me put together a really solid book proposal to back up the title. People who read memoirs don't often stop to consider the amount of research that goes into writing a lot of them, and the fact that I showed I was able to do that sort of research – going back in time, for instance, to discover when gerbils first started being marketed as pets in this country – helped convince the publisher that I was up to the job of writing the book. That's important with a nonfiction book, since you typically sell those on the basis of a proposal and a couple of chapters.
A frequent complaint from new authors is how difficult it is to find an agent or secure a book deal. Do you think, as ‘literary gatekeepers’, traditional publishers have an obligation to open more avenues, like authonomy, through which new talent can emerge?
I actually think most traditional publishers and agents are open to new talent. What's difficult is that they are just cogs in the big publishing wheel, and that wheel runs like any other business machinery: slowly and cautiously. But most editors and agents I've known are thrilled to find new writers, because 1) they often got into the business because they love books as much as we do, and 2) it's often easier to sell a book by a debut author than one who has already published a novel that didn't sell enough copies to pay back the advance.
Why did you choose to self publish SLEEPING TIGERS?
I grew extremely frustrated because I'd been writing fiction for over twenty years, earned an MFA, and even found a wonderful agent, yet couldn't sell a novel. I didn't want to go to my grave not having sold a novel, and I'd had a reasonable amount of success writing all sorts of nonfiction, so maybe that gave me the courage to do it. I looked upon it as a way to further my education, figuring that I'd at least learn how to market a book if I published it myself, and I was quite right. I think every writer should try self publishing, if only to really learn how to use social media to promote a book. Even the biggest publishers don't have the capacity to promote a book the way the author can, by interacting personally with other writers and readers.
On the subject of marketing, has it been a relief to go back to the traditional route with your latest title THE WISHING HILL, or do you find yourself doing just as much self-promo as you did for SLEEPING TIGERS?
I do just as much self promotion - writers need to be captains of their own ships, when it comes to social media, setting up events, etc., because nobody cares as much about your book as you do! However, one reason I went back to traditional publishing is because it's really terrific to have the kind of team behind you that will help you get your book into bookstores, send books out when you need them for events, and help set up things like blog tours for you. Yes, you can (and should) do a lot of that yourself, but it can get quite costly to promote a book, and it's grand to have help with it.
What about the creative side? Did you find that you had more freedom to write what you wanted when you went indie?
Well, truthfully, I write what I want anyway, probably because I know how volatile the publishing market is; there is always a new ‘it’ book every year, whether it's LIFE OF PI or WOOL, so you might as well write the book you want to write and then decide how best to get it into the hands of readers. For instance, if I decided to write a sexy romance, I'd probably self publish, whereas it's easier to find an audience for literary fiction or women's fiction through traditional publishing venues.
Why did you choose to sell the rights for your latest title, THE WISHING HILL, to a publisher rather than going indie?
I love going to bookstores and browsing the shelves, and I'd always fantasized about seeing my novel among the others there. Maybe that will happen one day with self published books, but for right now, it's much easier to find your book on the shelf of your favorite bookstore if a traditional publisher has put it there. In addition, I found it was a better bet for me financially to have a publisher fund much of the editing, design, and marketing efforts than for me to put the money up for those things and earn it back. Yes, I did earn it back, but I had to have the money in the first place, and that's a tough thing when you have kids you're putting through college, as I do. Oh, and I also wanted my book to be sold internationally, and that, too, happens more easily if you're traditionally published.
Some argue that publishers don’t offer the same value to authors that they once did, making self publishing a preferable option. Do you agree?
It definitely depends on the type of book. I think it's certainly true if you're writing in a popular genre, like mystery, romance, or fantasy. But, for writers of literary fiction, for instance, traditional publishers are still the way to go.
If you had one piece of advice for authonomy authors looking to self publish, what would it be?
Hire both a developmental editor and a copy editor if you can afford it! If you can't afford to do that, then at least have the manuscript vetted by other writers who will help you catch things like problems with chronology, weak scenes, sluggish flashbacks, or grammar boo-boos.
Holly Robinson is the author of THE GERBIL FARMER’S DAUGHTER (published by Three Rivers Press), SLEEPING TIGERS (self published), and THE WISHING HILL (published by New American Library).
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