|'In Milady's Chamber' is the first book in Sheri Cobb South's popular series of John Pickett Mysteries|
The first book I wrote was actually the fifth one to be published. When I was shopping the manuscript around to agents, I got it back with a letter saying, among other things, that its “boy next door” plot was “far too familiar” in the young adult (YA) genre. I was devastated! I didn’t know any other authors at that time, so there was no one to put that letter in its proper perspective: an agent had taken the trouble to contact me personally and tell me exactly why she was declining to represent it. That letter was pure gold, and I was too inexperienced to know it! The second book I wrote was my first published novel, a teenage romance called Wrong-Way Romance,published in 1991 by Bantam as part of its long-running YA series Sweet Dreams. From the time I started writing to the time my first novel came out was 3 years; it seemed like ages at the time, although in fact, I got awfully lucky, awfully fast.
You’ve published novels in several genres. Some authors say that publishing different types of novels can confuse the readers. Have you ever found that to be the case? Have you ever published under other names?
I’ve never published under another name; in fact, I went from writing YA for Bantam to self-publishing Regency romances (more on that in a minute), back in the day when self-pubbing was considered to be professional suicide. It was almost a given that anyone self-publishing did so because they just weren’t good enough for the New York publishing houses. I felt that my Bantam books established my credentials, so to speak; going with a different name might have given me better placement on library or bookstore shelves, but I would have sacrificed the name recognition I’d built up over my five books with Bantam.
To me, the biggest challenge about writing YA is/was the fact that your readers outgrow you. So in a way, going from writing YA to writing for adults seemed like a natural progression. In fact, there have been times when I’ve been promoting my Regency novels at conferences and someone will come up and start talking to me about Wrong-Way Romance!I don’t mind; I’m delighted that so many people still remember it so fondly after almost 30 years—including two authors I’ve met who credit that book with inspiring them to write romance.
“With prodding from my husband, I took out a loan for $4,000 and had 1,000 copies of the book printed”Many self-published authors are jealous of novelists who are published by ‘traditional’ publishers. In fact, you’ve gone from traditional publishing to self-publishing. Why did you do that?
Necessity! To my dismay, I discovered I have a superpower: I can destroy whole genres without even trying. After five books with Bantam, they canceled their Sweet Dreams series in favor of the “Goosebumps”-style paranormals that were squeezing YA romances off the bookshelves. So I decided it was time to try my hand at writing a Regency, which had always been my favorite genre for reading. I won the Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot Award in 2000 for Miss Darby’s Duenna, but by that time publishers were dropping their traditional Regency lines for the longer and sexier Regency-set historicals.
But even if there had been plenty of publishers to choose from, I’m not sure they would have chosen to acquire my books; I seem to be a bit out of step with what publishers want, or at least what their marketing departments say will sell. When I wrote The Weaver Takes a Wife, one editor sent it back to me with a note saying, “No woman could possibly fall in love with a man like that unless he was devastatingly handsome.” Maybe I was too attached to Ethan Brundy (the titular “Weaver”) that it clouded my thinking, but I’d seen online bulletin boards on which readers complained about the sameness of so many Regency romances that I was convinced at least a few people would welcome him as a refreshing change. With prodding from my husband, I took out a loan for $4,000 and had 1,000 copies of the book printed. That book is the most popular single title I’ve ever written. Armed with a few good reviews, I sold the large-print rights to Thorndike Press, and based on strong sales of the large-print edition, I pitched the John Pickett mystery series to Five Star, the first-edition fiction imprint of the same company. Then in 2016, Five Star dropped its mystery line (do you see a pattern here?), so I’ve been publishing the series on my own since then.
What are the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing? Isn’t it simply much harder work to do everything yourself when you publish your novels?
Yes! The advantage, of course, is that you have complete control of your work, and keep all the income it brings in. The disadvantage is that you wear all the hats: writer, editor, typesetter, art department, marketing, etc. I’m fortunate in that my writing is finally bringing in enough that I can afford to hire good people. I liked the way my Five Star cover designer “branded” the John Pickett series by using the same font for the title, etc., so I retained her to create the covers for the series. As for the Regency romances, there are so few stock images available for Regency covers that there’s bound to be a certain amount of repetition. I went to the fan-art site Deviant Art and found a young Japanese woman living in Budapest whose style I liked, so I commissioned her to create custom artwork for my Regency romances. As for the marketing, I feel like I’m always a step behind others in discovering the newest Big Thing in book marketing. Rather than lose valuable writing time just trying to stay up to date on it myself, I’ve hired a publicist to promote the last two books, and I’ve seen a corresponding uptick in sales.
Do you sell more in paperback or in Kindle format these days?
Paperbacks are actually a distant third in my sales, behind first eBooks and then audiobooks.
How do you go about finding a narrator and creating an audiobook?
I’ve done my audiobooks through ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange), the audio arm of the Amazon/Audible/Createspace publishing behemoth. ACX allows authors to audition narrators by uploading a (very) short excerpt from the book.
Publishing audiobooks sounds like it might be hard work and expensive.
It depends on how much you’re willing to spend. Then, too, what do you want from your audiobook(s)? Personal satisfaction, or real income? ACX allows for a 50/50 royalty split between author and narrator, so in theory it’s possible to create an audiobook with no money upfront. But . . . the best narrators won’t audition for these books. I always suspected as much, and at the Independent Audiobook Awards this past summer, I heard one say that she only works for a royalty split if the book is in a genre that she’s trying to break into.
Then, too, the very best narrators are members of the Screen Actors Guild, and the terms of their membership prohibit them from working for less than $250 PFH (per finished hour; that is, the actual length of the finished book) or $100 plus a 50/50 royalty split. It’s a bit of a sticker-shock, I know: when I was looking for a narrator for the John Pickett mystery series, I naïvely offered $100 PFH. Joel Froomkin emailed me, telling me that my book sounded exactly like the sort of thing he most wanted to do, but SAG requirements prohibited him from accepting my offer as stated. At that point, I had listened to almost a dozen auditions, and every one of them had the same problem: they all pitched John Pickett’s voice very deep and “manly,” when he needed to sound young (he’s 24), insecure, and completely in over his head trying to solve his first murder case as a Bow Street Runner.
Since I hadn’t yet found what I was looking for, I encouraged Joel to submit an audition; if I liked it, I was sure we could work something out. He absolutely nailed it. (He’s said since then that he voices John Pickett as “John Pickett as played by Eddie Redmayne.”) Since this was the first book in a series, I knew I would want the same narrator to do all the books, and I wasn’t sure if it would sell well enough, even with $100 PFH up front, that he would want to continue. So I bit the bullet and offered him the $250 PFH. It was the best business decision I’ve ever made.
Would you recommend less established authors to publish audiobooks or do you really need to have a dedicated readership to make this worthwhile?
I would say hold off until you can afford the level of talent you want, whether that comes from writing income, income tax refunds, work bonuses from your day job, or whatever.
Oh, and one other thing: for the love of all that’s holy, don’t narrate the book yourself! If you’re afraid the narrator will read it “wrong,” don’t be; I know that changes in inflection can change the meaning of a sentence, but in nineteen audiobooks, I can count on one hand the instances where I’ve had to ask the narrator to redo a sentence in order to convey the right meaning. The more important reason, though concerns sales. The best narrators have fans of their own—and those fans may buy your audiobook simply because they love the narrator. If you read your own book, you cut yourself off from being discovered by those potential listeners.
What do you do to promote novels? Do you have a mailing list? Do you use Amazon or Facebook advertising?
I have an emailing list, but I only send out a newsletter when I have real news to share. I don’t want to inundate people’s inboxes with mailings, but more importantly, I don’t want to have to spend time composing newsletters when I’d rather be writing! I have used both Amazon and Facebook ads, although the Facebook ads were actually created and run by my publicist. With Amazon ads, it’s important to set limits on how much you’re willing to spend per day, or it can get expensive in a hurry. For the author with only one book, I doubt if they would earn enough to cover the ad costs, so I would advise authors not to do it unless it was to promote the first book in a series, or unless they were prepared to operate at a loss in exchange for building name recognition—a tactic that certainly has its place, as long as you know what you’re getting into!
Your books generally get lots of reviews on Amazon. What’s your secret?
A lot of the reviews on Amazon are the result of BookBub promotions in which first The Weaver Takes a Wife and then In Milady’s Chamber were offered for free. I’ve always been leery of giving away my books for free—there is a school of thought that says we’re training readers to expect free books, which makes them less likely to pay for them—but at my publicist’s urging, I gave it a try. And she was right. Many people downloaded and reviewed the free books, then went on to buy the other books in the series.
“I emailed the Bank of England and asked for their advice on the best way to rob it.”Your novels often have a historical British setting. How do you research the details?
The internet has been an amazing help, not just for the information that’s available there, but for the way it can connect you with valuable sources. A case in point: When I was working on In Milady’s Chamber, the first of the John Pickett mysteries, I needed to know where the Foreign Office was located in 1808. I knew it had been in Downing Street, and at some point had moved to Whitehall, but I couldn’t find anything that said exactly when it had moved. So I went to the Foreign Office website and emailed the historian (because apparently that’s a thing). The next day, I not only got an answer to my question (it was Downing Street), but a whole paragraph vividly describing what the street would have looked like at the time! That experience made me a lot bolder about contacting people directly and asking questions. In fact, just this week I emailed the Bank of England and asked for their advice on the best way to rob it. (Yes, I really did!) I made it clear, though, that I was working on a book (Brother, Can You Spare a Crime?, coming later this year) set in 1809, and that I knew the bank had undergone a major renovation since then. They responded the very next day, sending me links to several documents and images in their archive, plus a book recommendation that I might find helpful.
If you were starting over again today, having never previously published a book, what would you do differently?
It’s tempting to say I would have started sooner. Had I done so, I would almost certainly have found it easier to find a publisher. But the “golden age” of the romance genre as we know it was in the 1980s, and by the time I began writing in 1988, many of the minor players had already vanished from the publishing scene, or soon would. On the other hand, sometimes it takes a seeming disaster like being “orphaned” by a publisher to force us out of our comfortable little ruts and into a new direction. I sometimes miss the satisfaction of going into a bookstore and admiring my book on the shelves, but when I compare my earnings then and now, that feeling quickly passes!