Thursday, October 31, 2013

Writer Interview: Chris van Hakes in the United States

Writer Abroad would like to introduce Chris van Hakes, a pen name for Shalini, the blogger behind Reading and Chickens, who just released her first novel, Lost & Found, which she published independently. Writer Abroad is extra excited about this novel because she went to high school and college with Shalini, back before they both knew they would become writers. Now Shalini joins Writer Abroad to discuss the experience of publishing her first book.

Congrats on publishing your first novel. Could you tell us a little about the premise?

Thank you! My elevator pitch is: Delaney hates Oliver, but not as much as Oliver hates Delaney. So why can't they stay away from each other?

At first it's a bit of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, contemporary-style. The novel starts out with Delaney and Oliver in a meet-cute, absolutely loathing each other. Oliver is a self-centered asshole, and Delaney has the lowest self-esteem, so they're obviously meant for each other. 

I like to think of it as a feminist romance. There are a lot of novels where a man "helps" a woman solve her problems (including Pride and Prejudice), and I wanted Delaney to go from weak to strong on her own (and she does).

You have a literary agent, who is currently shopping around some other book projects of yours. Why did she advise you to publish your first novel independently?

My literary agent and I parted ways this summer (amicably). She was incredibly insightful and I like to say she gave me an MFA in all she taught me about the art of writing. We worked on a YA novel of mine for nine months, and in the end, things just didn't work with the novel. 

I had another novel I was writing at the time, OFFICE CRUSH, that she said was well-written but wouldn't do well traditionally published, and I thought seriously about self-publishing it, but eventually decided against it. I focused all my energies around the YA novel instead.

After the YA novel was off my plate, I didn't really know what to do with my writing career, so I sat around metaphorically chewing my hair for a few months before deciding I wanted to self-publish, and to do something that sold well online, like romance, so I wrote LOST AND FOUND.

You published the novel under a pen name. Can you discuss why? Do you think authors should brand themselves differently based on the genre?

I am also a librarian, and I hope to one day be a school or children's librarian. While my book isn't exactly erotica (not even close), it does have lots of swearing and some sex, and I just wanted to keep those two worlds separate.

I think in the past authors have branded themselves differently by genre, and I can see the advantage, especially if you write both romance and children's lit.

Can you discuss your blog and the importance it has had for you as a writer?

My blog has been SO important. Not only have I met many great people, it gave me writing practice every single day, provided a great community for feedback, and helped me learn the ins and outs of social media. I think every writer should have a blog. If nothing else, it's free advertising, but I don't really think about it that way. I'm not sure the percentage of my readers who bought my novel, but I don't really care. They were cheerleaders, and every writer needs passels of cheerleaders!

How did you find your editor and book cover designer?

Honestly, I was incredibly lucky. My cover designer is a great friend of mine, and she volunteered because she happens to be a web designer by trade. My editor was a beta reader for my YA novel, who happens to also be an editor (who I met through my blog). I liked her notes on my YA novel so much that I asked if I could hire her. That's really no help to the wide world. Sorry!

Book promotion. Writers seem to have to do it whether they publish independently or traditionally. What has been your promotion strategy?

I'm still learning my strategy. I don't think I have one yet. I'm trying out GoodReads ads, and a few other places online, slowly rolling them out so I know what's effective and what's not. That said, so far I think almost all of my sales have been because of word-of-mouth, and BOY do I appreciate it. (See above when I talk about cheerleaders.) I think my other strategy is perseverance. I believe in my novel and my writing skills, and so it's just about finding my audience. I'll get there, whether if it's with this novel or the next one. I feel confident that there are people out there who want to read sweet, smart, well-written love stories about strong women.

Printing actual real books. How did you decide on Amazon’s CreateSpace? Was it easy to use?

I cannot go on enough about how professional and great CreateSpace was. The software is great. The review process is great. The way they get your book in print almost immediately is great. It's a lot tougher than formatting an ebook, because you have to consider gutter margins, font, line spacing, etc., and it took a lot of experimenting, and I wouldn't say it was easy, but I think that's just the nature of formatting for print. I think the final product is amazing.

Based on your experience so far, do you think you would publish again independently? Why or why not?

I'm only a week into it so far, so I think I need a little more time to decide. I really like being able to set my own timeline, and have control over my cover, and the great royalty rates, but if a traditional publishing house wanted to sink lots of money into me, I wouldn't be saying no!

I don't know that traditional publishers are great for first-time unknown authors any longer, though. If you go to a trade show, or look at the books being marketed by any of the US Big 5, they promote their biggest authors and throw all the money behind them. Smaller authors don't get much. 

As a capitalist, I understand this strategy completely, and if I were in book marketing, I'd do the same thing. It's hard to be on the other side of it, though, as understanding as I am. Agents and authors do SO MUCH work, and get paid so little, and the prices of traditionally published books are so much higher. I really enjoy having a book for 2.99. I'd feel guilty if readers had to pay 9.99 for an ebook copy, but it has to be priced that high to pay for all the marketing, publicity, etc., that I'm doing for free.

And those of you without agents so far--agents make even less than the author on deals so they're definitely on authors' sides in every sense. Something has to change, and I think self-publishing is making that happen. Self-publishers are learning, too, to not undercut the market by selling books for nothing, and how to put out a great product and make a name for ourselves that it's not all weird erotica or badly edited clichés. We're professionals, too, and I think LOST AND FOUND is the best work I've done so far. I've gotten a lot of "I couldn't put it down!" comments, and I'm extremely happy with that! I have a lot to learn, as does every writer, traditionally published or not, but I think my novel is a testament that quality exists in the self-publishing world.

 There has to be a medium where the public can appreciate art widely, and artists can actually survive doing what they love, and get better at it. Right now traditional publishers don't have the resources to support all the writers out there, and I think indie publishing is helping close this disparity.

Most of all, indie publishing is, at this point, low-risk. What's the harm of trying to write and sell? It's a great learning experience, and I'm so glad I'm doing it. I'm learning to be my own cheerleader, too, because I believe in my skills as a novelist so much more now that I have to self-promote and not just sit in a writing cave and think of great jokes and

I think much more now in terms of pacing and plot and what people like to read, as well as what I want to write. I think about what people say in my reviews, and how I can change that for future novels, or keep what people have loved. It's definitely helping me be a better writer, all around.

Yes, I want to purchase Lost & Found on amazon.
Yes, I want to purchase Lost & Found on the Nook (Only US).
Yes, I want to check out Reading and Chickens for more on the writing life (and just plain life).


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