It gives me great pleasure to welcome to Adventures in e-Publishing Fiona Robyn, author of the massively successful ebook, The Most Beautiful Thing, as well as a number of conventionally published novels, including Thaw, The Blue Handbag and Letters.
RM: Fiona, the last time I looked The Most Beautiful Thing was number 4 in Amazon’s paid for Literary Fiction chart, with an overall ranking of 214 in the Paid Kindle Store. You also said on your blog that the book had had 20,000 downloads. Congratulations on that phenomenal success. How does it feel?
FR: Thank you Roger! We reached #2 in literary fiction and 158 in the Kindle store… (When I say we, I mean me and my husband Kaspa – the co-founder of Writing Our Way Home, our mindful writing company.) If I try to imagine twenty thousand people in one place then it really brings it home. I feel hugely grateful for getting so high in the charts, which we’d never have achieved if it hadn’t been for my colleagues and contacts who downloaded it and spread the word like crazy on the day (including you, Roger, thank you.)
Can you talk us through the publishing history of The Most Beautiful Thing? What led you to the decision to e-publish?
There is a real life paperback, and it feels important to have that artefact. I finished the novel some time ago and sent it out to a few agents (after deciding to leave my previous publisher, Snowbooks) but didn’t have any luck. I’ve already self-published a few books and eventually decided to put the book out there myself and see what happened.
We researched different printing companies and we liked the sound of Lightening Source, who were able to give us a nice matt cover, and a smaller sized non-US paperback. They only work with incorporated companies and so we formed Woodsmoke Press, after a long day deciding on the right name! We designed the cover ourselves after our first cover disappointed us when the proof copy arrived, and coloured in the lettering ourselves on a sheet of A4 on our office floor!
We’ve focused our marketing efforts on Kindle for several reasons – I’d heard some authors do well through Kindle, there’s a MUCH higher profit margin on Kindle novels, we could make them free on Amazon through their ‘KDP select’ scheme, and I’m engaged with a lot of social media so it feels like a natural medium to me.
How does self-publishing compare to being published by a conventional publisher? What are the best and worst – or the hardest versus the most rewarding – things about self-publishing compared to being with a publisher?
As everything in life, I’d say there are advantages and disadvantages to both. The best bit of self-publishing is being able to send your ‘baby’ out into the world in exactly the way you want to – designing the cover, deciding how to launch etc. Creative control is not to be sniffed at, especially when you’re a teensy bit controlling like me. And I guess the flip-side to that is that it can be very helpful to have other people’s input and to collaborate with others which is more likely in traditional publishing. I did enjoy the relationships I formed when I had a publisher, and found them supportive. The worst is having to do everything ourselves – from buying the ISBN numbers to taking new stock into our local bookshop to the entire marketing campaign… this can leave less time for actual writing! And it feels more exposing – our success (or lack thereof) can’t be blamed on anyone else…
Most self-publishing writers find the experience quite a lonely one, I think. You’ve mentioned your husband Kaspa’s involvement with the project. How important has his support been?
I’ve done this both ways – my ex-partner, although very supportive of my writing, had no involvement in any way. I realised early on that I needed to sustain myself through relationships with writing colleagues, and so I went out and found some good people who kept me going when the going got tough. Some of these people I know only through their books – Anne Lamott, Brenda Ueland, Annie Dillard.
But I do feel incredibly lucky to have Kaspa at my side. It works both practically (he knows things about computers that I shall never know, and we bounce ideas off each other) and emotionally – both a sense of ‘being in it together’ and a place to take my disappointments, fears and joys. I don’t want to sound too soppy. So I’ll stop there!
How did you go about marketing the book? Whatever you did, it obviously worked!
I’m very lucky to have built up many friends, readers and colleagues over the years, probably partly due to spending too much time on Facebook and Twitter! I sent many individual emails to people the week before the free KDP days, asking if people could email their friends on the day, and I also registered the book with a few blogs that advertise free kindles (I didn’t pay for any ‘packages’ this time, but I might do that next time…) On the day I tweeted and Facebooked like mad! I already had a few good reveiws on the book which really helped. And people really came through for me. Once enough of their contacts had downloaded the book, it went high up enough for strangers to see it, and then they did the same…
How comfortable are you with the whole idea of self-promotion? Do writers who are uneasy with this side of things just need to get over it?
I range from feeling weary and squirmy to enjoying it very much, depending on my mood and on the response I’m currently receiving from ‘the world’. I wouldn’t expect anyone to just ‘get over it’ – some people’s temperaments will make them naturally more resistant to putting their work out into the world. But I see it as a responsibility towards my work (much like artist Nel in my current novel!) and this helps me push through the resistance. If I hadn’t done everything I’d done, thousands fewer people would have met Joe.
You described “Writing Our Way Home” as a “mindful” writing company. What exactly do you mean by that?
We use ‘mindful’ as a bit of a shortcut, really – a word that people can relate to. As a company we’re all about helping people engage with the world, themselves and each other just as it is – with all the good and the bad. Our main ‘tool’ is writing – small stones, journalling, sharing experiences in private groups… Paying a different kind of attention to what’s around us and inside us can be hugely powerful. Our e-courses really do change people’s lives. It’s a real privilege to be running them.
What is the future for Woodsmoke Press (I like the name by the way – a day well spent!)?
Who knows! If I write another novel and if I don’t get any stunning offers from huge publishers then we’ll publish it. We’re also planning to publish another collection of ‘small stones’ (short observational pieces of writing) from our ‘River of Stones’ this January – and Kaspa and I have ideas for a collaborative book…
More broadly, is independent e-publishing the way forward for you?
Again, I’ll wait and see what unfolds. We have been able to make a bit of money with this novel which would have been much more difficult with the margins for paperbacks (especially as our printing costs are higher than they would be if we were doing big print runs). I wouldn’t say that being snapped up by a big publisher is a dream, as I know that this comes with its own complications as well as advantages. For me the most important thing is to bring myself back to the process of writing – and not be too thrown away by the successes or failures of my writing ‘out in the world’. I know that publishing success isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s still a struggle for me not to get sucked into that sugar high and want more more more! So staying grounded and continuing to tell my truth is central.