September 20, 2011

Author Interview: Joe Follansbee on Editors and Self-Publishing

Over the seven years that the Author-Editor Clinic has been working with writers on their full-length manuscripts, publishing has undergone many changes. Primary among them has been the increasing number of writers who self-publish. Quite a few authors we’ve worked with editorially have gone on to explore both POD publishing and now ebook publishing. (Published titles we know about are listed on our website.)

Joe Follansbee, a Seattle writer and savvy self-publisher in the field of maritime history, is one such author. After having explored iUniverse with his book Shipbuilders, Sea Captains, and Fishermen: The Story of the Schooner Wawona, he produced both a POD and a Kindle version of The Fyddeye Guide to America's Maritime History. Joe has now released a Young Adult novel, Bet: Stowaway Daughter, as an ebook in both Kindle and EPUB formats. I am a big fan of this new novel, set in the 1930s in Seattle and off the Alaskan Coast, and highly recommend it (you don’t need an E-reader, but can download it for $0.99 through Kindle’s free app for computers and other devices or from Google Books).

Joe has joined us on the blog this week to answer some questions about his writing career, how he’s created and marketed his self-published books, and how he views the role of an editor in this new world where authors more and more often self-publish in a variety of formats.

—Barbara Sjoholm

Can you tell us something about your writing background and how editing fits into your work?

I have been writing professionally since 1986. Most of my early experience was in daily journalism; I worked for daily newspapers in Washington, Oregon, and California and freelanced for a tourism guide publisher. I also spent eight years as a reporter and producer in public radio, with my final position as a news director in the Minnesota Public Radio network station in Rochester, Minn. In recent years, I’ve written technical books, articles for general interest magazines, and a young adult novel that I will publish independently this fall.

I’ve always felt that editing was critical to my success as a writer. Most editors have tried to help me make my work better, which helps both of us in the long run. Of course, editors have motives distinct from writers, but ultimately, a good editor/writer team results in a product better than either could have produced by themselves.

You’ve self-published in several different formats: iUniverse, CreateSpace, and now Kindle. What have you learned from each of these experiences?

The expanding world of print-on-demand and author services teaches one lesson: The old world of centralized control of the printed word is gone forever. In the bad old days, because of the costs associated with producing and distributing books, traditional publishers were the only organizations with the capital to make books. For the most part, authors were dependent on publishers to reach an audience with their ideas.

We are now in a transition period in which the center of power is shifting toward the author. Most aspiring authors, working through author services companies such as iUniverse or CreateSpace, can finance the production of a printed book for $1,000 or less. If the author focuses on an ebook, the costs are even lower. While traditional publishers still have considerable power in the marketplace, and authors are still wise to submit work to the Big Six and their smaller cousins, unsold manuscripts no longer have to sit on a shelf with no future. The author can enter the marketplace on his/her own, and take the risks once reserved to major corporations.

One consequence of this change is the greater responsibility that rests on the independent author. Smart authors who strike out on their own understand the necessity for an editorial partner, usually an editor, even if it’s only for copyediting. (The most common complaint I see of independently published work is the apparent lack of proofing.) For example, I sought out an editor to review my manuscript for Bet: Stowaway Daughter, and she made several important suggestions on a range of issues. I’ve also asked about a dozen people, including members of my “young adult” target audience, to read and comment, and I made several changes that came out of this informal focus group. In the traditional model, the author may have simply submitted an accepted manuscript and waited. An independent author needs to be more assertive about quality control.

What have you done to market your books?

Independent authors like myself have another new responsibility: marketing. In the past, authors could rely on traditional publishers to market their books to bookstores and the general public, at least minimally through catalogs and trade fairs. Independent authors don’t have this luxury, and the smart authors take advantage of marketing options offered by author services companies, such as CreateSpace.

However, these marketing services can be pricey. In my case, I have the technical skills to conduct online campaigns, so I purchased only the marketing services I could not perform myself. For example, I bought high-quality bookmarks, business cards, and postcards for my book The Fyddeye Guide to America’s Maritime History. I also hired an illustrator to create compelling cover art for Bet: Stowaway Daughter. However, for email list and distribution services, I use MailChimp, which is free for lists of up to 500 addresses. I also built the computer files needed for ebook production.

Here’s a partial inventory of marketing material I have created myself for my projects:

For editors considering working with writers who self-publish, what skills would you suggest they develop?

The relationship between editors and independent authors is a perfect example of the ongoing power shift in the publishing world. When authors are paying the bill, editors can no longer expect to dictate even minor changes in a manuscript. However, editors passionate about their craft should not hesitate to follow their instincts and point out all the problems they see.

Editors used to the traditional relationship venturing into this new world may need to approach an author differently, especially an author who needs a lot of hand-holding. More than ever before, an editor will find herself in the role of teacher and supporter, encouraging an author to see mistakes in a positive light, and showing the advantages of a different approach to a character or a scene, for example.

Furthermore, as this new world evolves, editors may also find themselves in the role of project manager or business advisor, helping an independent author take a project from manuscript to finished product on a shelf or in a mobile device. This means editors who have at least a sense for production and marketing in this new world will have an advantage over editors who choose to focus strictly on the text and leave all the other publishing steps to someone else.

—Joe Follansbee

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