Saturday, 11 January 2020

Diane Farr Interview : From Trad Publishing to Self-Publishing

Diane Farr is a successful ‘trad published ‘paperback novelist. So why did she decide to go it alone and become an independent publisher? Here I try to find out…

When did you start writing? What was your first published book?

It’s difficult to remember that far back. Hmm. Seems to me I began with poetry at about age six, but actually there are recordings of me at nine months’ old, alone in my playpen, babbling and chuckling and clearly telling myself a story. So I acquired my storytelling habit early.

Diane, babbling and chuckling (not a recent photo!)
By the time I started school I read aloud with great expression, and was put on a local television show a time or two to read “news for kids” or some such thing. I desperately wanted to become an actress—a prospect that alarmed my parents, who had rather Victorian views about show business in general and actresses in particular. Nevertheless, I graduated college with a degree in Drama and happily pursued an acting career for quite a long time—not an easy field, but I did have some success—until I met and married a man who was not a theatre person and preferred that I find a different creative outlet…something that did not require me to rehearse five nights a week and perform on weekends. I had never really stopped writing; I was about halfway through my first novel at that time. So I switched gears, got serious about writing, stayed home in the evenings, and finished the novel.
The Nobody was published in 1999.

How did you go about getting a publishing deal? Did you approach the publisher yourself or did you first get an agent?

I wrote The Nobody as a lark. I had read all my Georgette Heyer novels to tatters, and wanted a new one. As she had died some years before, there were no new Heyers to be had. So I started writing one, with no thought of publication. The Nobody is the result of that endeavor. I have since learned that new authors frequently mimic a writer they admire—consciously or unconsciously. I consciously tried to write in Georgette Heyer’s voice, and where I failed, discovered my own. The Nobody is a strange little mashup of her voice and mine. Luckily, people liked it.

I won my agent in a contest. There’s a wonderful organization in the States called Romance Writers of America—a ten thousand member behemoth—that nurtures authors in many ways. For authors in the early stages of their careers, they sponsor writing contests of various sorts. I entered one called the “First Kiss” contest, where you enter ten pages of your unpublished novel containing the scene where the hero and heroine first kiss. The three highest-scoring entries would be judged by Irene Goodman, one of the top agents in New York. The Nobody was one of the three highest-scoring entries, and she ranked it number one of the three. So she offered to represent me.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic. But when I sent her the full manuscript, she informed me that she couldn’t sell it. “It’s not a romance,” she explained. She was very nice about it. The publishing industry—particularly in those days—had rigid definitions of what constitutes a romance novel. The Nobody did not fit the industry parameters. Did I mention it was like a Georgette Heyer novel? Yeah. It contained no love scenes and was largely populated with very nice people. The publishers (said Irene) were not interested in witty banter. They wanted conflict between the hero and heroine.
Basically, they were looking for Beauty and the Beast and I had written Cinderella.

Then one of the judges in the early round of the contest wrote to congratulate me on my win. She was a published author whose editor, lo and behold, was looking for just the sort of book I had written. As it turned out, I was not the only reader suffering from Georgette Heyer withdrawal. There was a market for witty banter after all. Signet Books, an imprint of Penguin Putnam (now Penguin Random House), published what they called “traditional Regencies.” This author generously offered to put in a word for me, I was invited to submit The Nobody to Hilary Ross at Signet, and that was that. My rookie effort was snapped up by a big New York publisher. Heady stuff.

How many books have you published in the ‘traditional’ way?

Eight novels and a novella published as part of an anthology. In industry jargon, the first four novels were “traditional Regencies.” The next four were “Regency historicals.” What’s the difference between a trad and an historical? A trad is a bit shorter (about 75,000 words) and offers the reader a time-travel vacation. Its readers are history buffs and Anglophiles, college-educated and largely female. You will hear from these readers if your hero, in 1816, drives a carriage that was not on the market until 1818. An “historical” is a bigger book (about 100,000 words), and has a much larger audience. These readers have a different set of expectations. Sentences are shorter. The voice can be more modern. Sexual tension looms large. Love scenes are not only permitted, but encouraged. You will hear from these readers only if you bore them.

My “breakout book” was The Fortune Hunter. Distribution was a bit wider than bookstores. It was a huge thrill for me to see my novel in a grocery store! But the main difference between The Fortune Hunter and the books that preceded it was the foil on the cover. Foil is expensive, so you know you have arrived when the publisher springs for foil on the cover…and places your name above the title, instead of below it!

You then decided to publish your books yourself, using Amazon I believe? Why did you make that decision?

There was a bit of a crisis in the publishing world. My editor, after decades in the business, was abruptly canned and I had to find a new home. My agent thought this was a great opportunity for me and suggested I try writing a book about a teenage witch. “Young adult” (known to the industry as YA) was booming, thanks to Harry Potter. She assured me that books about teenage witches were hot. I was pretty sure the trend was already running out of steam, but attempted to oblige. My “teenage witch” became a girl with mysterious powers who is deeply conflicted about them. Then into her life comes a boy who … yada yada yada. We sold Wicked Cool to Sourcebooks, but the contract fell through. I took it back and, in a fit of despair, sold it myself to Cerridwen Press. Cerridwen Press was wonderful and gave me lots of editorial support, but they were…gasp!... an e-publisher. To my mind, at that time, e-publishers were one step up from a vanity press.

I had a lot to learn.

Cerridwen offered Wicked Cool for about six months before announcing that they were going to concentrate on their biggest seller, erotica, and were letting the rest of their catalog go. So the rights reverted to me. Gosh darn it. Hardly anyone had bought the thing, and now it was mine again and I didn’t know what to do with it.

I decided, since my sisters wanted to read it, I'd make it available through Amazon’s CreateSpace, a “print on demand” publisher. It was a free service, and at least my family could order a copy and receive an actual book. So I uploaded it, went through the cover creation process, etc., and was rather pleased with the result when I ordered a proof. Wicked Cool was a slender volume with a glossy cover, printed on bright white, high quality paper. It looked nice enough. So I hit the “publish” button and told my sisters.

When I hit that “publish” button, another option popped up. Did I want to offer Wicked Cool for sale on Amazon as an e-book? The formatting had already been done. The cover was created. There was no charge. Just say yes. So I shrugged and said yes. Why not?

It was at this point, Huw, that I recall you entering the picture. You urged me to offer Wicked Cool for ninety-nine cents, the lowest price Amazon would permit. I was appalled, thinking I would never make any money selling books for that price. I followed your advice, however—since, at this point, I never expected to make any money with this property anyhow. To my surprise, after about a month, Amazon sent twenty bucks (or something like that) to my account. I checked my sales, and was astonished to see that a few people had bought it after all. You could watch your sales in real time. I amused myself by keeping the window up in the background and checking it every so often. The numbers would go: Tick. Tick. (long pause) Tick. Then, suddenly, the ticks took on a life of their own and started to go tick tick tick tick. Then more of a …whoosh. I couldn’t believe it. Wicked Cool sold thousands of copies that summer and spent a long time at Number One on Amazon’s “YA Paranormal” bestseller list.

What, in your experience, are the main advantages of self-publishing?

I am unfailingly polite to myself, even encouraging, and display none of the New York “attitude” so intimidating to us laid-back Californians. I rarely pace the floor, biting my nails, trying to screw up enough nerve to call me. I never fret about whether my calls or emails are an unwelcome interruption, or, worse, that I am being a nuisance, because I know I am my publisher’s number one priority. I hardly ever scoff at my ideas, or make appalling suggestions about what I should write. I don’t change my titles without consulting me. I pay me promptly. And if I don’t like my book cover, I change it—something no other publisher would do.

And the disadvantages?

No art department.

What do you do to promote your books? Do you advertise? Or do you use blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so on?

I am the absolute WORST book marketer on Planet Earth. I used to blog, back when everybody thought authors should blog, but my last entry is a year old. I tried to Tweet, but heavens, I was dull. Now I tweet as my cat. She’s far more interesting on Twitter than I ever was, and has quite a following. I have a Facebook page, but hardly ever post anything. Like Twitter, I find I am more far more comfortable on Facebook as someone else…in this case, the real-life me rather than the Author me.

I haven’t given up, you know. I still have the Twitter account, the Facebook page, and the blog. I just haven’t a clue what to do with them. I hate it when authors email me, or tweet about their books, or trumpet their releases on Facebook. I have yet to purchase a single book I’ve encountered that way. I figure I'd rather sit quietly in the corner, unnoticed, than annoy people. What to do??

Do you employ people to do proofreading, cover design or any of the other things needed to get your books ready to publish?

No, I am far too cheap. I spend nothing whatsoever on publishing my books. I used to work as a copy editor, so my copy is generally pretty clean from the get-go, but I have a friend who also has a past career as a copy editor, and we proof each other’s work. My cover art has gradually improved…my cover for Wicked Cool (or was it Scary Cool? One of them, anyway) actually won an “Indie Cover of the Month” award, an honor I was completely unaware of until I was notified I had won it. But I do miss that art department!

Do your books sell better in paperback or for Kindle (or other eReaders)?

My books sell best on Kindle through Amazon. I do have them available in other e-formats through Smashwords, which is my second-best income source. Smashwords can sell them to readers who have Nooks, or Kobo readers, or buy their books through Apple, or whatever. Most of them are available in print editions as well, but the print editions, naturally, cost more to produce and deliver than the e-books do, and I try to offer them at a low price point—so I don’t make a lot when people buy the print versions. There are still some readers who prefer a “real” book, so I’m glad I can make them available through Amazon for those readers.

If you were starting your writing career all over again, what would you do differently?

I would start sooner.

Diane Farr is the author of a dozen novels, a few plays, a weekly newspaper column, and a novella, all of which have been published by somebody or other. She is self-publishing lately–an experience she recommends to any writer who dislikes high-stakes phone calls with way-too-powerful people in New York.

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