Ann Bracken (AB): I first met you several years ago when you were the featured reader at the Wilde Readings series. Please tell me a little about your journey as an author and why you’ve chosen the Indie/self-publishing route for your work.
Debbi Mack (DM): At the time I did it, I’d had my first novel in the Sam McRae mystery series, Identity Crisis, published by a small press. However, the press went under nine months after I signed the contract. So the book went out-of-print less than a year after it came out in 2005.
I self-published it in 2009, with the sole intention of getting the work out there. It was literally impossible to sell the series to anyone but a small publisher at that point. And even small presses were turning me down. No agent would consider it, and each and every one of them (who bothered to share any advice with me) told me to write a standalone and try to find an agent with that.
So, I wrote two standalone novels, one of which I’ve self-published. But that was after I came out with the Sam McRae series myself.
I just thought if readers had a chance to read the book, they might like it. In addition, my local chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization that supports women mystery authors, were self-publishing an anthology I was in through Lulu.com. So, I figured I’d do the same, because why not? It cost nothing, and you got royalties from them, like any other publisher.
At the same time, I was getting the print book ready for release, I discovered ebook self-publishing through Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Platform). Since it was a non-exclusive deal they offered, again I thought, why not? I figured it would be good for a bit of spare change. Seriously, that’s ALL I expected.
AB: What were some of the most important things you learned once you chose this path?
DM: Too many things to list! 🙂
First, publishing was changing faster than I could keep up with it. By 2011, my first novel had hit the New York Times bestseller list. However, the way it got there turned out to be unsustainable.
At the time, I had five blogs and a website. I priced my books low (at $0.99) when everyone was pricing theirs at $2.99. Why? Because my volume sales were much higher at that price point.
Everything seemed to be fine. Except I started to hear that authors would need to publish more and more books a year, if they intended to survive as authors.
Then Amazon pretty much offered indie authors a kind of … I’ll call it an “ethical bribe” … and I’m being really kind in saying that. Amazon offers various “benefits” if you agree to be exclusive with them for at least three months.
At the same time, Amazon was rapidly expanding into other markets, creating its own publishing imprints, expanding further into retail, making motion pictures, opening bookstores. All this while the Department of Justice was pursuing an antitrust case against the Big Six (or Five, I can no longer keep count). That seemed terrifically ironic, given the all-out takeover Amazon was engaged in.
And how much of a disservice was it to readers with Nooks or other devices for authors to simply say, “Sorry. I can’t sell you an ebook, because … Amazon’s paying me to be exclusive to them.” Not that any author came right out and stated it. What was worse, no one saw that this was a problem at the time. So many authors I spoke with were like, “Oh, it’s only three months.” The problem is indie authors lost their independence when that happened.
Some will tell you that the only way for an author who only writes fiction to make a living now is to come out with some ungodly random number of books a year. They will tell it requires constantly creating new books and publishing them, on top of the marketing part. Talk about unsustainable.
I commend to your reading this article by Mark Coker, CEO and founder of Smashwords.
That was 2018. Now, in 2020, here’s what he had to say.
Now, knowing that Amazon makes most of its profit from providing web services, a few folks are finally realizing there’s a great big problem here. Amazon (in essence) runs a substantial portion of the Internet itself. I wondered how it wasn’t a conflict for Amazon to essentially own the distribution network other publishers depend on, while also competing with them. And why more people weren’t asking this question.
As of this writing, more people are asking just that question, but it is still a discussion confined mainly among people in publishing, including self-published authors, small presses, and the like.
But here’s where things get (even more) complicated for me.
Because I made the quarterfinals in screenwriting contest in 2012 or thereabouts, I became more interested in writing screenplays. This was something I’d always wanted to do, but had no idea how to get started.
So, I made a decision to write screenplays. I attended the Austin Film Festival, as well as a local class on indie film production. That’s when I learned about things like crowdfunding. And I set up a crowdfunding campaign without any real planning. Naturally, it succeeded only because a family member swept in and donated the money. That’s not the way crowdfunding is supposed to work.
Right now, as I write, I should (maybe) have some kind of big launch plan in place in anticipation of the release of the second novel in my new series. But, frankly, it’s all I can do write these answers.
I have a rare movement disorder that makes typing beyond difficult. It was caused by a stroke, and as a result, my left hand is constantly moving in all different directions. It is sheer hell on concentration, but for good or ill, I tend to be very focused and possibly a bit too driven to succeed at things.
So, I had to learn not to care about my Amazon rank. I also had to learn that there are many ways to build a fan base. And one of them is to write high-quality content and find a way to connect with readers in a personal way.
I learned the hard way about not paying for promotions. I was spending way too much on that. I got to the point where I incurred big enough losses for me to want to simply quit.
At some point, I just had to stop all my promotions. Just stop and think about what I really wanted. I’ve also had to think about what my idea of success is. And, at this point, just having a new book out is a success for me. As for being in Amazon’s Top 100 or any of that, I really don’t care at this point.
Having genuine connections with readers, along with networking in the filmmaker realm has kept me busy. Especially with the pandemic. So many people have virtual events now. And you can end up in an endless loop of those.
On the whole, I’d say my experiences have taught me that it takes more than writing a good book and putting it up online. And marketing experts abound out there. Ready to take your money, I might add, for the advice they offer, which ends up involving Amazon ads, Facebook ads, etc. etc. That particular depends on gaining a competitive edge through algorithms. The algorithms were with me ten years ago. Not so much now. Besides, another person’s success story may not translate into one of your own.
The bottom line is that self-publishing is easy, but marketing and visibility are not. So many people self-publish now that, unless you want to agonize over Amazon’s algorithms, you probably won’t make the money I was able to ten years ago.
AB: For people who may eschew self-publishing and hold out for a deal from a “real” publisher, what would you like them to know?
DM: If you think having a “real publisher” will assure you great success, think again!
I wouldn’t discourage it, but I’d advise you to go into it with modest expectations. Since I only know this from talking to other authors who’ve been traditionally published, I’ll let one of them do the talking here. 🙂 Rea Frey appeared on my podcast recently where she talked more about this.
If you write genre fiction like I do, any traditional publisher will give you a relatively small advance. And, if you fail to sell enough books, they’ll drop you from their stable. Most authors don’t usually earn out even these small advances, mainly because they aren’t marketing well. And the publishers aren’t doing the heavy lifting. They’re relying on the sales of books by authors much higher up on the “food chain”, so to speak. The big names with the big advances get the most marketing help from publishers.
There are actually advantages to going with a smaller press, for that reason. You’re one of a select niche (or genre-specific) group, and they have more at stake in making sure you’re successful. You’ll definitely get more personal attention from a small press. You’ll still need to market, but a reputable press has contacts and connections that you may not.
Naturally, you can earn more when you publish directly online, because the royalty percentage is higher. However, if no one can find your book, you won’t make sales. Visibility is the tough part.
AB: What are some of the pitfalls you’ve encountered that you’d like others to know about?
DM: Um … see above. 🙂
Here’s a short list:
#1 Spending way too much on promotional services;
#2 Failing to connect with fans through a newsletter or other means;
#3 Trying to be everywhere on social media, doing everything, without sufficient thought as to whom you’re reaching or trying to figure out how to reach your ideal reader;
#4 Simply doing giveaway after giveaway without checking the effect on your bottom line;
#5 Taking time off from online activities, now and then;
#6 Writing salesy newsletter content. I see this way, way too much;
#7 Lack of genuine connection with one’s readers;
#8 Valuing short-term gain over long-term strategy;
#9 Not treating self-publishing as a business. Keeping track of income streams and exploiting every income stream possible from your content.
And that’s just a short list.
AB: What personal qualities do you think have helped you to be successful as a writer?
DM: I would say just plain stubborness has kept me at this. I’m also diligent about my writing routine. I try to do a little writing every day.
Also, just flat-out passion for the work. Without that, there’s really no point in doing any of it.
AB: Tell us about your latest project:
DM: Actually, right now, I’m publishing my second novel in the Erica Jensen mystery series. It came out on Nov. 11 as an ebook and the print version will be out soon. And working out the plot for the next one.
I’m also working on a Sam McRae story that I plan to serialize on Substack. That’s a whole ‘nuther discussion right there.
If you’re familiar with Amazon’s Vella serials, Substack is essentially the same thing for indie authors. There are currently indie authors serializing their fiction there. With Vella, again Amazon requires exclusivity. I won’t do that.
Substack is both a newsletter and a blog combined. Every time you publish a new chapter, it goes out by email to subscribers. You can start of with free samples, and charge for whole books. That’s just one way of going about it.
To be honest, I have no idea how successful fiction authors have been with Substack. But I’m giving it a try, because … again, why not?
And for what it’s worth, you can essentially do the same thing on Medium. Medium lets you set up a paywall pretty much in the same manner as Substack. I’m experimenting with both these days.
I divide my writing time roughly 60% fiction writing, 40% screenwriting, more or less. Planning when and what to write ahead of time keeps me focused on finishing projects.
AB: What is Patreon and how does it benefit authors?
DM: Now, that’s a great question. Basically, Patreon is an online platform that supports creative work of all kinds by providing a way for creators to offer incentives for fans of your work to become your patrons. Like the patronage system of old, except on the Internet and with the ability to reach a worldwide audience.
An author can benefit from this by offering early access to drafts of their work or making personal appearances at book clubs or one-on-one consultations. It lets you offer different benefits at different levels of support. The type of benefit depends on what you write and what you offer readers, in general. It could be early drafts of works-in-progress, classes, consultations, live Q&A, Discord access (Discord is a kind of direct messaging system that I haven’t quite figured out, to be honest). In exchange for these benefits, supporters get to know your work and, assuming you get the word out about your Patreon page, the idea is similar to crowdfunding. Provide a special benefit of some sort and people will pay for that.
The idea is that true believers in your work will support you, if you ask nicely.
There’s a book by Amanda Palmer, who’s a musician, which doesn’t matter really. It’s not what you make, but how you entice people’s interest in your work. Amanda Palmer wrote a book about all this called The Art of Asking. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in Patreon.
Other books about Patreon are out there. But Amanda’s is most interesting.
And you really don’t have to be a rock star to have fans who’ll support you. I think it’s largely a matter of taking the time to figure who you’re trying to write for and how to best reach them.
AB: Other thoughts?
DM: Just keep writing. Be willing to take advice from others, but choose your advisors with care. Take any advice you get with more than one grain of salt. And don’t give up, but do give yourself a break now and then.
Debbi Mack is author of the Sam McRae mystery series, including her debut novel, Identity Crisis, which made the New York Times bestseller list in 2011 and is under option to be adapted for the screen. Her standalone books include a middle grade novel, Invisible Me, and a thriller, The Planck Factor.
Her most recent release is Fatal Connections, the sequel to the Shamus-nominated Damaged Goods, the first novel of a new series featuring Erica Jensen, a female Marine veteran sleuth, who battles PTSD and drug addiction while solving crimes.
You can catch Debbi interviewing other crime, suspense, and thriller authors on her podcast, the Crime Cafe. Debbi is also a screenwriter with aspirations to produce scripted audio and video content.
Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/debbimack
Also on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/debbimacktoo/
And YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/DebbiMack
And Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/crimecafe