Q&A: Catherine Ryan Howard

When I first started digging around in the wealth of information about self-publishing, the blog Catherine, Caffeinated leapt out at me like a pulsating beacon of pink light. It’s a deep, deep goodie bag full of priceless information, and you’d be foolish not to head over there and check it out. And while you’re at it, grab a copy of Self-Printed – The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing. It’s invaluable.

Author of the above, Catherine Ryan Howard, agreed to answer a few of my questions, despite her manic schedule. And for that I am very grateful.

I see from your blog that you’re in the final stages of writing your first novel. How’s it coming along? Exciting, emotionally draining …?

It’s not quite my first novel but it’s the first I’ve written in this genre. It really is like running a marathon – the plot is quite complicated and it can be difficult at times to convince myself that I’ll make it to the end, but then at other times it goes really well and I wonder why I ever doubted myself. (Usually I’m experiencing the first emotion in the morning, and the second one in the afternoon when caffeine has fully infiltrated my brain …).

I remember once reading something that I think is worth remembering: even if nothing ever comes of your novel, and it never reaches the eyes of another human being, if you finish it you still finished it. You still wrote a whole book. And no one can ever take that away from you.

What was your route into self-publishing, and how steep was the learning curve?

Vertical. I decided to self-publish back in 2010 because the travel memoir I’d written, Mousetrapped, was getting no love from agents and editors and it had a really niche market. A friend sent me a link to the POD site Lulu.com, and I thought, ‘I may as well bind it and throw it up on Amazon so that people can buy it if they want.’ I wasn’t really thinking about self-publishing as starting a business, as a professional operation – but luckily I soon saw sense and began to treat it as just that.

What three things do you wish you had known about the process at the time?

Probably (i) the importance of editing; (ii) choosing a cover based not on what you like or what you believe should be the kinds of covers that go on books like yours, but instead on what works, what has been established for that genre – matching the established cover ‘rules’ for your genre is a shortcut to sales; and (iii) that self-publishing successfully is like a full-time job, and one that may not start to pay for quite a while.

To be honest, if I’d known everything when I started, I might not have bothered – it’s just as well I was clueless!

Blank white book w/path

From what I can gather, many self-publishers are quite content with the way in which they are getting their books to market. Do you feel the same, or would you prefer to have a traditional publishing deal?

I don’t feel the same, no. My dream has always been to get a traditional deal and it continues to be. For me, there’s no point in talking about what the landscape of publishing will be like in ten or 20 years’ time: I’m concerned with NOW. And at the moment, the vast majority of books are bought in print editions from bricks-and-mortar stores. Self-publishers just cannot compete in that arena. I also don’t think it’s one size fits all, or that you have to choose between self-publishing and traditional. The ideal situation is to do a bit of both. That’s my aim in the long term.

The biggest challenge of self-publishing?

You’re on your own. Everyone talks about how great it is to have control, but the flipside is that when something goes wrong or you just have a bad day, the buck stops with you. There’s no team to help bear the brunt of it. It’s great on a good day, when you can look at your success and say ‘I made that happen, I did this all by myself’, but it sucks on the other ones.

Whether we like it or not, when the book is written and on the shelves – either virtual or actual ­– it has become a ‘product’ that needs marketing. How have you found that process, and what general tips would you give writers to help them stand out in what is a very crowded marketplace?

Books were always products that needed marketing, and if a self-publisher denies that, they’re going to be in trouble. I still think the best way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to write a great book that people want to read – if you don’t do that, there’s no point bothering with the rest of it. We all think our lives are amazingly interesting, but is the world going to fork over its hard-earned cash in exchange for 500,000 words about the years you spent cleaning your living room? The book is a product and what’s the first thing an entrepreneur would ask him or herself about an idea they’d just had? Isn’t it, ‘Is there a market for this’? It’s the same with your book.

Once you’ve established there is, then it’s about practicalities like a great cover, a reasonable price and an enticing blurb.

Finally, I always like to ask: best books you’ve read recently?

I’ve barely read anything since Christmas because I’ve been writing, but I have to say The Farm by Tom Rob Smith was fantastic. I’m in the middle of Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse and it’s keeping me up past my bedtime, saying, ‘Okay, just one more chapter’ every night.


Many thanks to Catherine for dropping by. For more pearls of self-publishing wisdom, and to stay informed about what she’s up to, visit http://catherineryanhoward.com


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