Writing, promotion, tips, and opinion. Pour a cuppa your favorite poison and join in.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Week of Self-Published Authors: Debra L. Martin

Debra L Martin joins us today, someone who I'm very excited to have on Unicorn Bell. She has been a great help to me for a long time, especially when it comes to marketing. Kind of my own personal Author Guru. She's lent her advice selflessly, even spent time on the phone with me discussing strategies and ideas. Keeping in mind that we've never met face-to-face, I find that amazing and it lends a lot of credence to what Robin said in her interview: "It's called a community for good reason."

Debra and her brother form a writing team. They have seven novels to date, and are about to release their eighth. Pay close attention to this one, Debra has a lot of insight into the way the self-pub world works.

For those of us with a drive to make writing our one and only career, I think it's especially important to take note of the fact that Debra and Dave together have seven novels, plus Debra has four more under a different pen name--and they're still playing it safe and keeping day jobs. Except for some very isolated cases, volume truly is the key to independence in the author world.

You’re in a unique situation—you write as a co-author with your brother, David W Small. There must be enormous benefits to having someone to share the burdens with, but I imagine—like all creative endeavors that involve more than one person—there must be struggles as well. Many authors (probably most!) don’t realize how much work goes into achieving success as a writer until after they’ve written their first story. Would you recommend teaming up with another writer, do you feel it has been beneficial for your career, or would you warn against it?

Writing with a co-author means leaving your ego at the door. I have a post about this on my blog, Two Ends of the Pen, http://twoendsofthepen.blogspot.com/ but I’ll be happy to share it here. I started writing with my co-author Dave in 2006. I was lucky to have such an awesome co-author, but I’m a bit biased. Dave has traveled around the world while in the Marine Corps and with his military background, I could be sure that any fight/battle scenes in our books would be spot on.

Growing up we both enjoyed the same types of books—science fiction and fantasy—and even into adulthood, we would pass books back and forth on a regular basis.  One day I was on the phone with Dave while he browsed the latest books in SFF and he was complaining that every book available was basically the same. I said, “we could write our own book,” and our collaboration was born.

Now saying you’re going to write a book and actually writing one is at opposite ends of the spectrum. As any author will tell you, they’re heard that exact same statement from lots of people, but actually following through on it and putting words to paper takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and self-determination.

Our first book was Quest for Nobility, a fantasy based on the distant planet Otharia. Our main characters were royal twins (brother and sister). Surprising, right? Anyway, it made perfect sense for us. We’ve had a loving relationship all our lives and it wasn’t hard to write these characters and how they would react to the conflicts we would throw at them. We had a general outline of the book and initially assigned each other a chapter to write. Now that sounds reasonable, however, it turned out to be a disaster.

We turned out to be pretty similar in our writing styles and that meant we included pretty much all the same information in both chapters. Out came the delete button and thousands of words went into the trash bin. So then we figured that we would write one chapter at a time before we sent it to the other one for edits. That way we both knew what was already in the chapter and could move forward with the next chapter without repeating the same information. Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing especially when something was added in that we both didn’t agree on. Our mutual test was “if you can’t justify why something is included, then out it goes.” Yes, you definitely need to leave your ego at the door and keep the big picture in mind. You want to write the best book you can and sometimes that means things got left on the cutting room floor.

So that should have worked, right? Wrong! Do you know what happens when two people are writing a story without a specific outline? It’s not pretty and ¾ into the book, we thought of a fantastic tangent that we had to include in the book. That meant we needed to go back to the beginning chapters again and rework them so that our new tangent made sense. When we finally finished the book, we felt like we’d run a marathon, but we weren’t done yet. After letting it set for a few weeks, it was back for another round of edits. It’s amazing how much you see that needs to be changed if you step away for a bit.  All in all, our first book was probably edited from cover to cover at least 6 or 7 times before it went to our editor for the final edit. That’s a lot of editing, but the book is now something we both are proud to put our names on. This was also the book that nearly landed us an agent in 2008, but in the end, it didn’t work out. The one positive thing we came away with though is that we didn’t suck at writing! We could write an exciting action-packed adventure and that was a huge boost for us.

Because of our experience in writing Quest, we knew that we needed more than a 10,000 foot outline. In the second book in the Otharia series, The Crystal Façade, the writing went much more smoothly. We were getting into our groove and we had a much more extensive outline to work from. That’s not to say that we don’t think of “cool” things to add in along the way, we absolutely do, but at least now when we add in an unexpected twist or another tangent we don’t have to backtrack to the beginning and fix the plot. Even though we both know what the outline says, it’s still exciting to see how it actually turns out especially when we both add in little tidbits as surprises for the other.

We released Assassin’s Curse in 2012 and it’s the first book in a new series, “The Witch Stone Prophecy.” It was an absolute blast to write and we have definitely gained our rhythm writing together. We are currently working on the exciting conclusion Witch’s Curse to be released this spring.

Dave and I love writing together. It is a fantastic creative outlet for us, but it may not be for everyone. If you plan to write with a co-author, make sure you have compatible writing styles. When Dave and I look back at our books, we can’t remember who wrote what and that’s a very good thing!

You’ve crossed genres in your writing in a big way: High Fantasy, Vampire Romance, and Apocalyptic. You’ve kept your name the same with every one of your books. I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether you feel that crossing genres has been a benefit or a hindrance to building yours and your brother’s brand as authors. Do you feel it has helped you grow as a writer? Who you recommend branching out to other authors as a result of your own experiences?

Everything that Dave and I write together, we use our real names. Most of our titles thus far are in epic fantasy, but even The Silver Cross, our Boston/cop vampire story is in the fantasy realm, urban fantasy to be specific. Because this story is more hard-boiled cop than romance, we didn’t feel that publishing under our own names would be detrimental to our brand. We plan to write more books in our Vampire Nightlife series and like the first one, the emphasis will be on cops, action and intrigue. There will be an element of romance to it, but it won’t be the main focus.

I also write pure romance under my pen name, Debra Elizabeth. I felt that these stories would not fit into the brand Dave and I were building with our fantasy fans so I branched out with my own set of stories. We both felt that we didn’t want to confuse our fans. They expect a certain type of books from us and while you’re building your audience, it’s important to publish what they expect, at least in the beginning.

It is generally agreed that the most difficult part of being a self-published author is marketing, especially in the beginning when there are only a few titles for readers to choose from. Authors, lean in close and pay attention here. Debra has a great deal of experience with marketing.

How long (years) and how many novels did it take before you were able to consider that a career as a novelist might be a reality?

Dave and I started writing in 2006. In 2008 and 2009, we submitted query after query letters to agents hoping to be picked up. Back then, that was the only avenue to publication for authors. While we were never under contract with an agent, the personal replies we received on our query letters let us realize that our books had potential. When Amazon opened up the digital publishing platform in 2010, it was our chance to get our writing out to the public. It’s been an interesting journey as a published author, but like so many other authors, Dave and I still hold day jobs. We are building our career now in preparation for being able to write full-time in the next few years.

What strategies did you use to market yourself that you would warn others against using?

One of the things that new authors should try to avoid is trying to do everything and be on every social media platform out there. If you try to do too many things at once, you’ll not be able to devote the required time to make a difference on any of them and then you won’t carve out any time to write the next book.

Authors should definitely have an online presence such as a website/blog, http://twoendsofthepen.blogspot.com/ an author bio on Amazon, http://www.amazon.com/Debra-L-Martin/e/B003Q1WLXY have a Facebook author page, https://www.facebook.com/Debra.L.Martin.Author join Pinterest (which I just joined), http://www.pinterest.com/dlmartin6/ and have a twitter account https://twitter.com/dlmartin6 I spend an enormous amount of time on my blog which has taken years to build up so authors should be aware that you shouldn’t allow any one venue to take over all your writing time. The blog now gets 300-500 hits a day and I have a number of tabs at the top of the blog where readers can find out about all of our books, my interviews and a number of other interesting topics.

Connecting with other authors is crucial and Kboards, http://www.kboards.com/, is a great place to meet other authors especially in The Writer’s Café, http://www.kboards.com/index.php/board,60.0.html. Get involved in discussions on all social media platforms, but the one thing new authors should NEVER do is constantly say “Buy my book, buy my book…” That’s not the way to get noticed and authors and fans alike get tired of this very quickly.

What strategies did you use to market yourself that you feel contributed most to your success?

Marketing is the bane of all authors. It’s hard and takes an enormous amount of time, but patience is the key. You can’t get discouraged because most authors are not instant bestsellers.

Amazon offer authors added perks if you enroll your book(s) in Select. There are specific rules for this such as your book must be exclusive to Amazon, but you’ll get 5 days that you can set your book free. Now, you’re probably thinking “I don’t want to give my book away.” While this may seem counter intuitive, the point is that it gets your book in front of readers. You’ll always have those readers who will download every free book out there, but there are many others who actually are interested in reading your story. If they like it, they’ll come back for more. That’s how you begin to build a fan base.

Getting ads for your book on sites like Bookbub, Kindle Books & Tips and Bargain Booksy can certainly get your books in front of a huge number of readers, but because these sites have become so popular, it can take a number of submissions before your book is accepted. Most of these sites have specific guidelines for books they post such as a 4 star rating,
a certain number of reviews, etc.  I’ve had books accepted one time and then when I submit again, the same book is rejected, but you can’t give up. These sites are overwhelmed with requests and authors must be persistent in their efforts. It’s hard work, but anything you pursue could definitely pay off in the end. Get a certain book in front of readers and you could easily sell enough copies to make the best-selling lists, “New York Times” and “USA Today.” I’ve seen this happen over and over again especially with Bookbub.

The other way to get readers attention is to hold a giveaway on Goodreads. Giveaways must be for a physical book
though and many new authors only publish in digital form. Most new authors sell most of their copies in digital form so having a paperback may not be something they want to explore. Amazon’s Createspace, https://www.createspace.com/ does an absolutely fantastic job with publishing paperbacks. However, I use a professional graphic artist to format the book for publication. I can’t be good at everything and I’m happy to leave things like creating book covers, editing and formatting to the professionals. Createspace also offers professional services if you need them.

Is there any one book you’ve written that has molded your identity as a writer and made you into the brand you are? Is there anything about your brand that you feel has created a reason to compel readers to read more of your books? With regard to building a brand, is there any advice you would overwhelmingly give to struggling authors?

Assassin’s Curse is the book that gained us the most attention. When we release the sequel, we hope that fans of the first book will be more than satisfied with the conclusion to the
series. The Witch Stone Prophecy was a planned 2-book series from the beginning. Dave and I both get tired of authors that plan multi-book series and then take years and sometimes even decades to finish. With so many books out there to choose from, authors need to pay attention to their own career plans. Fans who enjoy your work want more and there’s questions authors should think about. Do they want to write a series? Do they want to write stand-alone books in a certain genre? How long will it take to write a book? These are all questions that new authors should think about before they write that first word. No one is an island and like everything else, networking with others is the best way to learn the business.


Debra L Martin said...

Thank you so much for hosting me today!

Tyrean Martinson said...

Thanks for all the great tips, Debra. It's amazing that you get to work so closely with your brother, and that your writing styles mesh so well! Although I don't have a co-author in my family, I get some amazing content feedback from my daughters - and since I write YA fantasy, they help me understand my audience a bit more.

I enjoyed reading about your writing journey and I appreciate all the tips. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great interview and lots of great information. I've done a tiny bit of co-authoring and it really is a challenge. It's great that you and your brother have such a close relationship and are able to make this work.

Liz A. said...

Fascinating about working with a coauthor.

Debra L Martin said...

Thanks Tyrean, JC and Liz for your comments. Tyrean - having your daughters give you tips on YA fantasy is essential. That's great you have that kind of input.