By Paul Goat Allen
Shelley Adina is the author of 42 novels published by Harlequin, Warner, and Hachette, as well as Moonshell Books, her own independent press. She writes steampunk and contemporary romance as Shelley Adina; writes classic Regency romance as Charlotte Henry; and as Adina Senft, writes Amish women’s fiction. She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and is currently at work on a PhD in Creative Writing with Lancaster University in the UK. She won RWA’s RITA Award in 2005 and was a finalist in 2006. She appeared in the 2016 documentary film Love Between the Covers, is a popular speaker and convention panelist, and has been a guest on many podcasts. When she’s not writing, Shelley is usually quilting, sewing historical costumes, or enjoying the garden with her flock of rescued chickens.
BIR: Shelley, first off, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.
SA: Thanks so much! I’m delighted to be here.
BIR: So, out of all of the authors that I know that indie publish, you’re the first one that comes to mind when considering those elite writers who have mastered the business model, those few who have figured out exactly how to make indie publishing (and publishing in general) work for them. You even teach graduate-level classes on the business of writing—and I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on some of those classes and watching you blow students’ collective minds. Would it be true to say that most new writers have no idea about the complexities of the business side of writing? And what were some of the biggest mistakes you made when you began indie publishing?
SA: What you say is true—it’s the rare new writer who understands that they’re launching a business, not just a book. My first sale happened to be my master’s thesis; I had just been laid off from Hewlett-Packard that week, so getting The Call from Harlequin was a pivot point in my life and I’ve never gone back to corporate. But like many new authors, in the thrill of popping that bottle of champagne and filling out the Art Fact Sheet for the cover and revamping my website, I couldn’t see beyond my pub date. I don’t know what I expected on the other side except for a rosy future with awards and reviews in Publisher’s Weekly.
Then came the bumps, like being fired from Harlequin after a RITA Award and seven books, swiftly offset by a move to Hachette. And a lot more money than I had ever seen before; publishing paid me advances totaling nearly half a million bucks. Those were the days! Then, in 2015 came the “missing buy buttons” debacle on Amazon, and my option book was declined because of poor sales. Like, duh. At that point I went fully indie. And while I knew about advance checks and that you had to pay them back, and how to read a royalty statement, I was not prepared for the reality of going it on my own.
Tip #1: Don’t go it alone.
Find a mastermind group of people both behind and ahead of you. In my mastermind group, we support each other and teach each other. We brainstorm back-cover blurbs, strategize on advertising, weigh in on cover art. I don’t know what I’d do without these smart, dynamic, funny women.
Tip #2: Get organized. Fast.
No, faster than that. Don’t just throw your receipts in a shoebox and hope someone else will figure it out. Maybe there won’t be anybody else at tax time, and then what will you do? I am the most math-impaired person you’ll ever meet. But I’m a good student. So I learned QuickBooks, and it does all the mathing for me. A QuickBooks Specialist comes every other month to do the rev rec [revenue recognition] and fix my mistakes, and in two clicks, I have the annual reports for the tax man. Don’t be me, flailing around in the shoebox. Be me, making those two clicks.
Tip #3: You are a small business owner when you’re an indie author
Treat it like a business, even when it’s your art. Bella Andre, NYT bestselling indie author, says, “Expect success.” Which means, get all the business framework in order and think big.
It’s hard for us creatives to activate our left brains and lay out a 3-year business plan, a marketing plan for a book launch, an analysis of the competition in our niche. Sure, you can pay someone to do that, but what if you’re new and not making any money yet? It’s never too late to learn new skills, and it’s good for you to stimulate the little grey cells. There is a ton of help out there on the interwebs. Take a swim through it. Vet what you read with other indie authors so you’re not getting ripped off paying a thousand bucks for a course whose material you could learn from a $4.99 book on the subject.
Tip #4: It’s fun.
Okay, scary sometimes, but mostly fun.
Having your hands on the reins of your own business is terrifying. But it’s also super rewarding. Writing “The End” on a good book. Seeing your gorgeous cover for the first time. Pressing that orange button to publish. All heart-pounding moments that bring you happiness. And hopefully, enough money for the next mortgage payment.
BIR: You’re obviously a supremely talented writer—and have written, and had commercial success, in numerous genres like steampunk, Amish fiction, contemporary romance, Regency romance, young adult, etc. But we both know being a competent writer isn’t enough. A huge part of finding success in indie is marketing—particularly branding—and when it comes to branding, you are an absolute genius. You have seven very different series and the cover art for every saga is distinctive and identifiable. Going beyond that, the collective cover art for every title in the respective series has commonalities—the same font, the same general design, the same tone… It’s truly a thing of beauty to see these covers together. Your Magnificent Devices steampunk series (written as Shelley Adina) is the obvious highlight; those covers together are breathtaking, but every one of your series is like that. The cover art for your Amish fiction saga written as Adina Senft revolving around Whinburg Township perfectly conveys the narrative content, as do your classic Regency romance covers for your Rogues of St. Just series written as Charlotte Henry. How important is branding, and what role do your covers play in conveying reader expectation?
SA: Aw, thank you, Paul. Speaking of the Rogues, did I tell you The Rogue to Ruin just won the historical category in the National Readers’ Choice Awards? Never let anyone tell you the writing doesn’t matter. It does. You can put an amazing cover on a book, but if it isn’t written and edited well, the readers aren’t going to give you many more chances. Respect your readers.
Under the marketing umbrella, branding is one of the first things an indie author must learn how to do. Brand your books so that they make a consistent promise to the reader, a promise that your series then consistently fulfills. It took me a long time to get there. Part of it is finding a cover designer who “gets” what you write. Finding that person is a quest that can be fun. Expensive, sometimes, because mistakes happen, but mostly fun.
Tip #5: Choose a designer who specializes in the genre or type of fiction you write.
You will not make a successful promise to your reader if you choose the best designer in vampire mysteries to do the covers for your prairie romances.
I’ve been lucky in finding designers and artists when they’re starting out, and watching in awe as their talent and expertise grow. The most important thing, as you say, is to convey the narrative content as accurately as you can, with perhaps a lovely visual metaphor or a clever Easter egg for series readers. You do not want a synopsis cover with every story element you can cram on there. The next most important thing is to then step aside and let the designer do the job you’ve hired them to do. Don’t micromanage. Don’t impose your vision on theirs, because let’s face it, we can build entire worlds in our heads, but we probably don’t know beans about building layers in PhotoShop. Look at the designer’s portfolio. Is their vision for their clients’ books delivering consistently on the promise of the “look inside” on Amazon? Then you can be reasonably confident that they’ll come through for you … and more, will probably deliver something you never dreamed of. That was my experience with the Mysterious Devices covers. I said “watercolor” and “1800s clothes” and Jenny at Seedlings made me gasp with the cover for The Bride Wore Constant White. With my Whinburg Township Amish covers, I said, “big skies” and “Amish markers” and Evelyne at Carpe Librum Book Design knocked me over, especially the cover for Herb of Grace. It is perfect!
Tip #6: You hire a designer because they know what they’re doing.
Get out of the way and let them do it.
BIR: This summer it looks like you’re reissuing three novels in your Whinburg Township Amish series, which were originally published by FaithWords back in 2014 and 2015—Herb of Grace, Keys of Heaven, and Balm of Gilead. The rights have reverted to you, according to your website. Can you talk a little about the experience of getting the rights back and having the ability to reissue these novels with you in control of every aspect of the process?
SA: Rights reversion is simultaneously one of the most difficult and most necessary aspects of the switch from traditional to indie publishing. The bottom line is, we authors want to control our intellectual property. It belongs to us, and being prevented from exercising our rights once the book’s life on the brick-and-mortar store’s shelves is over is, frankly, frustrating at best and criminal at worst. It’s no secret that certain publishers have a bad rep for hanging on to rights that clearly meet the criteria for reversion, yet they won’t revert them because they want to stockpile backlist in case they ever use them someday. Well, a business-minded author squints their eyes like Clint Eastwood and goes, someday is never coming and I want that book making money for me now. So you’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Then write that letter requesting those rights back. Send it to the contracts department, not the editor, who has probably moved on anyway. I’ve had the rights revert to 20 of the 23 books I traditionally published. I’ve been fortunate in a persistent agent and a willingness to be a pain in the neck.
Once that letter comes officially reverting the rights, the work begins. Because they only send you the letter. They don’t send you the actual final manuscript you submitted to the editor. So if by chance your computer crashed and you didn’t have a backup, or you didn’t bother to keep the electronic manuscript because you had the finished novel in your hand, you have a problem. (Solution: Hire someone to scan the print novel into an electronic file.) Then you crack your knuckles and get down to business:
- Keep the editor’s changes if you like them. Strip the manuscript of all the publisher’s other formatting and comments. If those are locked, use the nuclear option and save to RTF. If you don’t, all that stuff might show up in the finished book—very embarrassing.
- Insert the changes you made to the publisher’s galley proofs (you hung onto those, didn’t you?)
- Once you have a clean file, import it into Vellum and format it.
- Change the back and front matter to reflect yourself as the publisher, inserting material that builds your relationship with the reader. Because there’s no one standing between you now.
- Rewrite the back-cover copy because unless you originally wrote it for the publisher, it’s their intellectual property, not yours, and your reversion letter will contain language to that effect.
- Produce the digital and print files and upload.
It’s wonderful to have control of my own intellectual property again. To be able to give my books covers that I love, and have input into the process of design. To fix errors in the copy that had been bugging me since the original publication. The covers that my publishers gave me were good in general (with a few exceptions, like the cops investigating a cocaine ring who were having a pillow fight. Eh?). Herb of Grace and the other two books in that trilogy had custom watercolors painted for them. They were lovely pieces of art. But they didn’t look like the Amish books that the other publishers were putting out, and one bookseller told me that if she hadn’t known me personally, she wouldn’t have ordered them for her store. I liked them, and my editor liked them, but does someone in NYC know what readers in Ohio like? Probably not. But in indie world, now that you’re a publisher, you should know. The bestseller lists in your genre will tell you.
BIR: We’ve had conversations in the past about why you write the stories that you do, and I remember you talking about the importance of writing what you know (authenticity) and what you love (passion). Am I remembering correctly, and does this still hold true to your current writing?
SA: It does! But authenticity and passion don’t mean I get to step into #ownvoices territory and flounce around. I stay in my lane, even with diverse casts. I’ve never lived in steampunk London, and never been Amish (close though). But I can go to both London and Lancaster County and make the reader’s experience as authentic as possible. My passion for those settings and my characters then takes over for stories as compelling as I know how to make them.
BIR: How important is it to you to write a story with an emotionally connective character? That is, a character that your readers can identify with on some level and live vicariously through… Can solid character development be just as important as plot intricacy?
SA: It’s vital. In fact, solid characters are more important than intricate plots, don’t you think? That’s true in the markets I write for, anyway. I remember Kristin Hannah giving a workshop years ago when she confessed she wasn’t a very good plotter. But her characters are so real they become part of a reader’s memory, as if they’d actually known her people. She goes deep, not wide. In my case, I’m writing long-running series. Readers don’t stick with the series if they’re not connected to the characters.
Lady Claire Trevelyan, for instance, has hooked thousands of people because she’s at once vulnerable, smart, and courageous when it comes to what or whom she loves. People want to go on journeys with her to clockwork Venice or the diamond fields of the Canadas or the air pirate hideouts of the Wild West just to see her in action. But it’s more than action sequences and lightning rifles. It all begins with her character, and the people she gathers around her as her found family.
BIR: Since we’re talking about characters, which one of the hundreds of characters that you’ve created do you identify with the most?
SA: I’d have to say that Julia McNeill in book one of my Smoke River quartet is the most autobiographical. She was my avatar as I worked my way out of a closed, toxic religion. (My husband always says that the hero on the motorcycle is him.) That book won the RITA Award for Best Inspirational Novel, too, which was the amazing light at the end of a very difficult and scary tunnel.
The heroine of Herb of Grace and its two following books is Sarah Yoder, a Dokterfraa, or herbal healer. I identify with her a lot, too—her tendency to impose her own thinking on situations where it would be better to let people make up their own minds, for instance. She makes mistakes, but she’s also willing to go to someone and say, “I’m sorry.” She has an inquiring mind. But as she came to life over three books, she became more and more her own woman—thank goodness! She has enormous compassion for the people she treats, and in the greatest dilemma of her life, she wills herself to do the right thing, even though it breaks her heart. It’s these kinds of flawed but redemptive characters that people want to read about. They want to see the best of themselves in them, I think.
BIR: If you were the guest speaker in an auditorium full of writers who had just decided to self-publish, what would be your biggest piece of advice to them?
SA: You’ve heard me say it, Paul, so it won’t be news to you. But to those authors, I’d say this: Self-publishing is a business decision. It’s not a vanity project, or flipping the bird to the tradpub establishment. It’s the choice you’re making because you feel this is where you will have the best chance to find your readers. Build those relationships. You don’t have to give them your phone number, but you do need to deliver what you’ve promised consistently, and improve your craft continuously. You’re in control. It can be the most terrifying and most rewarding choice you’ll make. Do all the legwork to learn about your market. Write the best book you’re capable of. Get it edited well and covered beautifully.
And then take a deep breath and hit “publish.”
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program. Readers of this blog are offered a $50 discount on a BlueInk review by using the “key code” Allen. (This in no way guarantees a review by Allen.)