Today I’m delighted to welcome writer Lisa Scullard, who works across the zombie, parody and romance genres. She caught my eye recently after releasing a novel under a pen-name with no fanfare or marketing frenzy, and yet achieved surprising results. Lisa also works on the editing side of things, and is a font of knowledge when it comes to formatting.
I was intrigued by your blog post about releasing a book under a pen-name, in a genre that you hadn’t previously written in before, and with next to no promotion. What prompted you to do this, and how surprised were you by the reaction?
I’d dreamed of writing romance from the age of about thirteen, and had a very rose-tinted view of it – meaning I never felt qualified. I believed for a very long time that romance authors all led very romantic lives, whereas I’m more self-isolating and insular. So I avoided it out of fear of looking like a fake, and wrote my first books in the dark satirical, parody genres I enjoyed reading myself.
I held onto the idea of writing romance eventually, made a few first chapter submissions to Harlequin in the past two years, and received some encouraging feedback. That was enough for me to keep trying – so when I finished One Stolen Kiss last October and they requested the full MS immediately after I submitted the opening chapters, it was as if I had suddenly been handed the ‘qualification’ to write romance that I never felt I possessed before.
I decided not to wait longer than three months for a decision from them, and to self-publish under the pen-name ‘Lauren Boutain’, which I had prepared already to keep it separate from my parodies and zombie adventures. I knew the market for romance was likely to be more hungry, more discerning and more critical than any other, but the downloads on the free promotion I ran that first weekend early in February were a complete shock to me. I think at the busiest there were 100 per hour in the UK alone. Plus a few readers left reviews quickly on Amazon UK, and tracked down my blog to say nice things as well.
It really wasn’t anything like my regular experience of writing and channelling my usual idiosyncrasies into the void – I’m not used to such an appetite for a genre. As far as I knew, I hadn’t done anything different. In fact, the book (and the author alter ego) had both come from nowhere – no preamble, no fan base, no blog posts or teaser excerpts, nothing. I have no idea why it snowballed; it reached #4 in Romantic Comedy and #24 in the Kindle Top 100 Free Bestsellers in the UK. Things have calmed down a bit now, but in the free promo it had nearly two and a half thousand downloads worldwide, mostly in the UK, and 100 paid sales in the week following.
You put it on KDP Select – is this something you’ve done with your other releases, and do you find that it helps to get the word out?
I have done it with a few other books, and I would say the impact is proportional to the original interest in a freebie. If I get a few hundred downloads on a free promo, it’s rare to get any paid sales afterwards. Since publishing the new book earlier this month, I’ve realised the kind of breakthrough a new book has to make to get any effective response. I read somewhere that one reader has more than 10,000 free books saved on their Kindle Cloud, so I assumed that as readers browse all of the free books, individual books often get added or downloaded in small numbers but aren’t necessarily read. I probably won’t renew the KDP Select status for this one after three months, as I’d like to make it available on other devices. But it was a quick (and unexpected) way of seeing the difference in response compared with my books in other genres.
Can you tell me a little bit about your writing background, and what you are currently working on/future projects?
I started writing at about the age of six or seven, as therapy, on the advice of my mum – I wasn’t having a good time at school. She suggested writing stories where ‘things worked out’. A strange way to deal with a small unhappy child, now I think about it, but I came from a large family and I was the eldest, so I guess I was expected to deal with things and not be the one to make a fuss, and I never questioned it. But it’s fair to say I’ve been writing ever since, and some of my stuff is very introspective, and still trying to make sense of life.
The parody and romance writing for me is my real escapism. I’m still very insular, even as a single parent, so I’d say about 90% of my identity is invested in living in an imaginary world. At the moment I’m working on more romance novels, and it’s pretty daunting, knowing now how high I set the bar for myself with the first one. I also have a couple of screenplay commissions in progress, but they’re not my stories, they’re based on someone else’s family memoirs, so I think yet another pen-name might be in order as they’re not my usual material at all – neither parody nor romance.
You’ve made a lot of headway in the past with pitches and submissions – would you still prefer a traditional publishing deal, or do you enjoy the freedom that self-publishing brings?
I think the things that traditional publishing deals would offer are the high-street/supermarket bookstore option, the additional rights deals, and the foreign translations. There’s definitely room for that on the table, but I do like the freedom of self-publishing, and I like testing the water for real, rather than sending stuff to the slush pile of an agent or editor’s inbox, where it might never be opened, let alone read. I like the idea that complete strangers are free to discover my work by accident, and nobody’s shoving it under their noses in fancy packaging, or pimping it with a marketing budget that would be better spent on clean water aid in the developing world.
I used to have a lot of patience, before the internet came along – I would wait three to five years and write another book on request for a major publisher with no promise of publication or a contract. Now I don’t believe in spending longer on publishing a book than it takes me to write one.
The tone of your blog reminded me in places of Dan Holloway, in that you seem to write purely for the love of it, rather than being driven by the possibility of commercial gain. I then discovered that you know Dan, which, I guess, shows that I was paying attention. Do you think it’s a fair assessment of your motivation?
Ha ha – yes, Dan is very deep, and I think his writing and performing is more about self-identity and identification within the self of the outside world than any public recognition that stems from it. In that sense a lot of my attitude is similar, and I would add self-fulfilment as well. I think there is still a mindset of some folk who look at the book industry and its major players and successes, and believe there’s commercial gain for everyone who meets the right kind of luck in it. But if I was rich and successful in any industry – and I’ve worked in a lot of jobs – what I’d still be doing for my own fun and amusement in my spare time is writing.
I don’t have a bucket list of things to see or do or buy if I ever get rich. I only have a bucket list of stories to write, and it’s growing all the time. I don’t need commercial success to achieve that, in itself. Especially considering that I’m writing for myself as my main audience!
You work as a freelance editor and formatter. I’m aiming to have my novel out in the next six weeks, after editing and cover design etc, and even though I’ve read that formatting is not too overwhelming for the uninitiated, I still have a vision of my head connecting repeatedly with the wall next to my computer. I want the book to be perfect, so what are the biggest pitfalls to be aware of?
In ebooks, your formatting can change – or be obliterated entirely – when your document converts after uploading. Speechmarks and paragraphing can change font and font size, margins can be all over the place, and headings shunt everywhere. At the moment, the best file type to preserve your formatting to upload onto Kindle is Microsoft Word, although their Help section still advises using HTML. I’ve found a lot of corruptions creeping in with HTML files lately, including font sizing and line-spacing irregularities, especially in the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ preview. I’ve seen some total book wrecks appearing there, after editing a few typos in old HTML files for clients that converted perfectly a year ago and re-uploading them. Saving them as MS Word to upload onto KDP was the only way to resolve the problems.
I would say the most common formatting error in an ebook is the use of space bar strikes to position text, where the author has treated their computer as one would a typewriter – make sure there is no fancy positioning of text using the space bar, tab key or multiple line returns in an ebook – use paragraph/field formatting settings instead. You’ll end up with text shunted unevenly across the e-reader screen as it ‘wraps’ automatically, and blank e-reader screens above headings, or between paragraphs and at the end of chapters if you leave manual spaces and extra line returns in the document. Use ‘show non-printing characters’ in the ‘View’ menu to show where these issues might appear.
The explosion in self-publishing was recently described as a ‘shit volcano’, which seems unfair to me. I’m old enough to remember punk, and a lot of the output from that era wasn’t exactly ‘musical’, but instead created by people with something to say – and who found their way barred by the pop ‘establishment’. Most of them fell by the wayside, but some changed the music scene forever. Can you see a parallel with self-publishing?
Can’t say I’ve been a fan of everything the publishing and music ‘establishment’ cranks out either, so I’d say the traditional and self-publishing markets both have their equal amount of toss and drivel as well as an equal amount of art, as appreciated in the mind of the individual. If you tried to listen to everything that was ever released by the commercial music industry, or tried to read everything that was ever published by the traditional publisher, you’d have very little that was complimentary to say about most of it, because regardless of the skill on display, it wouldn’t all be to your taste. You can usually tell if a writer’s style is to your taste early on, and many readers won’t finish a book they’re struggling with.
As adults we’re not in school anymore, no one’s asking us to do homework on everything we read. If it’s not for you, put it down and move on, just like switching radio stations if you don’t like the music. There’s as much pressure to write reviews as there is in the creative side of writing today, where the internet is a canvas for free speech and public opinion. When I was 14 I told my English Literature teacher in school that I hated his subject and had no desire to analyse the books I read. I only wanted to read for the purpose of escapism, not be made to think about any underlying motivation of the author and dissect it afterwards.
I thought Wordsworth wrote poems about flowers to impress girls with, and it meant he could chat up more than one girl at a time because it was easier to hide a poem in your pocket than a bunch of flowers. Having concluded that, I didn’t want to be made to probe too deeply into William Golding and the like. I think a story is enjoyed best when you can’t picture the author or their ulterior motives for writing at all, and it’s only about the story that unfolds in your own head as you read. No one looking over your shoulder, or demanding opinions and feedback.
I know that you are not one for ‘turning up ubiquitously on dozens of blogs or joining marketing campaigns and the review culture’; how far does your marketing activity extend, and which elements have worked best for you?
I have no idea what ‘works’… basically, I just tweet when the mood takes me using the #SampleSunday hashtag at weekends, which is also recognised when shared on GooglePlus, but there was no relation between tweets and the sales on the latest book. Most of the sales happened while I was asleep, or out driving or [parkour] training, and doing nothing pro-actively book-related at all. I don’t talk about being an author except to close friends and family, or at author publishing support group where my calling is to give advice on technical and computing issues to do with formatting.
I have one particular parody out that seems to sell consistently on iBooks and I’ve never promoted it. It’s a nice feeling to be able to go about my daily life and no one I see or speak to in passing knows I spend twelve hours a day thinking about and writing stories, and I have no idea whether or not anyone I meet or speak to has read one of my books. I guess I still adhere to the mentality that if something is great enough for readers to share and recommend among themselves, the best thing I can be doing for them is to be working on the next story, and making it a good one. Anything else would just be making a procrastinating nuisance of myself. And wasting time that I might otherwise end up writing an unprecedented bestseller in.
Finally, I always ask: best books you’ve read recently?
I love fantasy and satire, so I often revert to Terry Pratchett and Tom Sharpe – there’s always a book or two of Pratchett’s on the go at once, stacked on my coffee table. Currently it’s the Long Earth books and Raising Steam. Lately I’ve read The Garden of Unearthly Delights by Robert Rankin, and Jeremy Clarkson’s I Know You Got Soul (I’m a big fan of cars and engineering technology). I still love and re-read GK Stritch’s CBGB Was My High School, the memoir of a classy girl from New Jersey who would hop on the late bus and train at night on the weekends and fitted into the New York punk rock scene of the 70s and early 80s. I’ve also just started Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag by Oliver Bowden, which is the second game tie-in I’ve read – the first was Hitman: Damnation by Raymond Benson. Not long ago I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick for the first time, but I think my favourite, Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat still has the edge.
Thanks to Lisa for doing this Q&A. If you want to catch up with her writing, head to http://lisascullard.wordpress.com/ebooks/ or http://laurenboutain.wordpress.com/ (the latter is her romance alter ego blog).
For tips and advice on formatting ebooks, check out http://lisascullard.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/formatting-text-and-illustrated-ebooks-for-publishing/