by Tammy Burke
Can I just say wow! How impressive the number of “hats you’ve worn!” From award-winning author to marketing consultant to indie publisher and professional speaker (and illustrator, freelance graphic designer, art director, etc.) …everything in the publishing industry from what I understand except distribution. I’m so glad you are taking part in this year’s conference!
Mary Shafer: Wow, thank you! I think in another point of view, the only thing impressive about my background is apparent. ADD. Truth is, I’m a true Gemini and I get bored very easily. Also always afraid of missing out on something if I don’t learn and try everything that catches my interest. Up till now, that has always kind of hurt me in a world where specialization is most rewarded, at least financially. But with the weird turn the publishing industry has taken in the past decade, having this diverse skill set has actually helped, and that’s one reason I launched Indie Navigator — because I remember what it feels like to be in that place where you know what you want to do, but have no idea where to start or how to get there.
I would imagine those taking your pre-conference workshop Indie Publishing Intensive better bring a notebook so they can capture all this excellent information you have listed. I was wondering if we could get a bit of a teaser on some of the things you’re covering?
Mary Shafer: Sure. Actually, I do encourage those who learn better by writing things down (as I do) to take notes. But for others, it’s not necessary. I always prepare very thorough handouts for each of my presentations, as well as making my Powerpoint decks available as PDF downloads for all attendees. I just post the download URL at the bottom of each slide so people can copy that down and that’s about all they really need, because I put any handouts, examples, etc. in the same folder they access for the slide deck download.
That said, here’s a bit of what they can look forward to in my Indie Publishing Intensive, which I’m really excited about. I’ve presented all the elements before, but never all together in one time and place. So this will truly be intensive — I’m thinking of it as more of an Indie Publishing Bootcamp, with the exception that we’re not actually going to go through any hands-on workshops. It’s just going to be an insane amount of real-world information — not hype or vaguely disguised wishfulness — shared in a four-hour afternoon. But I guarantee that anyone who’s been on the fence about whether or not to become an indie publisher won’t feel that way when it’s over. They will know what to truly expect as an indie/self-publisher, and will either feel energized and excited by the challenge, or will save themselves a lot of time, effort, money and heartache by resolving to seek a traditional publishing deal because they realize they’re just not cut out to be a publisher themselves.
What I’m going to cover includes content from several of my more popular narrated slide presentations. I’ve broken out the process into three steps: Possibilities, Publishing and Promotion.
Possibilities will explore in detail what to expect if you decide to take the traditional publishing route and, alternatively, if you decide to self-publish. This is the amalgamation of these presentations I currently give to writing and indie publishing groups:
- I Finally Finished My Book…Now What? – Options for modern authors
- 21st Century Books: What Is A Publisher, and Should I Become One? – Telling it like it is; the good, the bad and the ugly
Publishing will outline the very real considerations of what it means to actually be a publisher: setting up your business structure; choosing whether to publish only your own work or that of others, as well; apps and other technology that can help you manage day-to-day operations; sourcing vendors, etc. It encompasses some of the content of my presentation.
- Digility: Digital Agility in Publishing – bit technical, laying out important considerations for someone building a modern publishing house from scratch
Promotion offers guidance in the nitty-gritty of publicizing and marketing your publication products and authors – arguably as important as offering a quality product in potential for success. It includes content from these presentations I often give at writer’s conferences:
- Getting Published Ain’t For Sissies – Marketing for Nonfiction Authors: Finding your niche, building your author’s platform, effectively employing guerilla promotion tactics, creating a killer press kit, mastering modern technology to serve as your 24/7 personal publicity agent, and anticipating, identifying and leveraging trends.
- Takin’ It to the Tweeps: Twitter for Authors and Independent Publishers
- Your Book’s Website: Separate or Connected – Explores the advantages and disadvantages of single author/book sites and separate sites for each title inside a whole publishing web presence strategy
- Online Newsrooms: What You Need and How To Build It – A step-by-step tutorial on this most important yet often neglected element of any successful author and publisher website
As you can see, it’s truly an exhaustive amount of material, but that’s what an intensive is about. Attendees may leave feeling a bit overwhelmed, but they will no longer face the dizzying confusion of wondering what they should be paying attention to and what lies ahead of them depending on the route they choose. Plus, they’ll be able to refer back to my handouts and slide downloads again and again. I tried hard to formulate a way to share the hard-won knowledge I wish I’d had when I faced the need to become an indie publisher. I don’t want anyone to have to struggle that way.
One the things you mentioned in your bio is that you share what you know so other authors and indie publishers don’t have to learn the hard way too. (And thank you for that, by the way) I am curious…what do you typically find as the top three most common mistakes?
Mary Shafer: Among authors and would-be authors seeking publishing deals, the top three mistakes I see are:
- Failing to invest themselves and perhaps a bit of money in making their manuscript as polished and fully edited as possible before turning it in to the publisher or publishing it themselves. (I consider this a cardinal sin, frankly. There’s no excuse for turning in or publishing shoddy work other than laziness or lack of caring, both of which reflect not just on that author but on all authors and indie publishers.)
- Failing to build a promotional platform for themselves as an author “brand” before ever approaching a publisher.
- Not understanding the publishing process, resulting in their having unrealistic expectations of the experience.
For indie publishers, I think the top three errors I see would be:
- The same as #3 above: lacking an understanding of what to realistically expect from being a publisher because they don’t really comprehend the entirety of what’s entailed in present-day book publishing. Far too many would-be publishers are still stuck in the last century when it comes to grasping how drastically this industry has changed in the past 10-20 years.
- Overestimating their own knowledge, skill sets and capacity to get the work done. There are few fields in which it’s so critical to know what you can do well on your own, and what parts of each project you’d be better off delegating to someone with the right mix of skill and experience.
- Underestimating the start-up costs in money, time and energy it takes to become a truly successful publisher.
I’m certainly not pointing any fingers—I’m as guilty as the next person in not having really known what I was doing when I first got started as an indie publisher almost 10 years ago. But I have a rather unique background that provided me with the exact mix of diverse skills that allowed me to survive all my dumb decisions.
It is both fascinating and inspiring to hear tales of the “blissfully unaware” overcoming the odds — like the success you had marketing your first book when, at the time, it wasn’t expected to earn out. What did you do that perhaps others haven’t or didn’t do?
Mary Shafer: In addition to the relatively unusual skill set I just referenced, I’m also lucky to be a quick study. When I’m in focused mode, I can take in a great deal of information at once, process it quickly and almost immediately integrate it into current projects and apply it in place of less-than-effective activities I would previously have used to get a job done. Not unsurprisingly, this typifies why indie publishers are able to be successful in today’s ever-evolving book industry: we’re small, and so much more agile. Our lack of overhead and the structural inflexibility that plagues larger organizations allows us to adapt quickly to the rapid changes that have characterized book publishing for decades now. Other advantages I had were that I am a proactive seeker of new information, and I have the courage of my convictions. If I know I am capable of doing something, I just don’t listen to the naysayers.
In the case of my first book, though, I must admit that I wasn’t up against that — I simply didn’t know the prevailing conventional wisdom was (and still is) that first-time authors are pretty much expected to fail. This isn’t nastiness on anyone’s part, it’s simply an acknowledgment of how much work it is to create, publish and market a book. Happily, there are many first-time authors not just succeeding, but doing so at a level unprecedented before the rise of digital technology. My entire reason for doing the presentations I do is to dispel that myth. Yes, odds are against the first-time author, but that’s mostly because the majority of them are woefully ignorant, unprepared, arrogant, lazy or all of the above. Anyone who doesn’t fit that stereotype in fact has a good chance of succeeding not only with their first book, but also in the long term!
You mentioned a new “Wild West” of publishing. I like that term. Could you tell us some of the opportunity that’s available?
Mary Shafer: I call it that because, just as on America’s frontier in the mid-1800s through the turn of the 20th century, the industry is without most of the “laws” that governed it for centuries. There are no longer any hard-and-fast gatekeepers and exclusionary forces that served for so long to keep people out of publishing. The Internet has largely democratized access with a still-proliferating array of publication/distribution platforms, marketing and promotion services and tools, and apps to handle almost any business operations function. Provided people are willing to self-police against inadvisable business practices, poor production values and bad customer service, there’s no reason they can’t create and sell books very successfully to an international audience of repeat buyers.
Is it easy to determine if someone should consider self or indie publishing?
Mary Shafer: If it were, GLVWG would not have had to hire me to give this intensive. 🙂
I understand being in a Category 3 storm as a child along with having two tornadoes (yikes!) pass by either side of your house during the early 1990s left you with a bit of a weather obsession. How much do you think these experiences led you to the writing and publishing of your award-winning “Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955?” Also, I’m curious, what does a Skywarn Weather Spotter do?
Mary Shafer: Just to be clear, I was not in the main circulation of Hurricane Alma as a child, only in the outer bands — so I never experienced true Cat 3 storm conditions. But what I did was certainly bad enough to have made a lifelong impression. And yes, I do absolutely believe these brushes with Nature’s most violent forces played a large part in forming my weather obsession. SkyWarn is a program of the National Weather Service that trains volunteers from age 14-100 to recognize conditions amendable to severe weather and to use established criteria to spot and report actual severe weather conditions to local NWS offices. This is far easier and more immediate to do today, with smartphones that allow us to call in our observations or to report via a mobile Internet interface. You can learn more at SkyWarn.org.
I understand there is a story behind how “Word Forge Books” came into existence. Could you tell us a little bit about when, and maybe more importantly, how you decided to create it?
Mary Shafer: I had begun writing my book under contract with a new indie publisher in Doylestown in 2003, with guidance from a trusted colleague and friend who was, at the time, affiliated with the non-profit organization. Two years later, as I was in the final revisions of the manuscript, I was informed that the publisher had been forced to go out of business, leaving me with no publisher and no rights to my own work, since I’d already been paid a partial advance. Two wonderful friends/business clients of mine who supported my project graciously donated the $2,500 for me to buy back my rights, for which I’ll be eternally grateful. However, by that time it was far too late to find another publisher if I were to make my goal of publishing in time for the mid-August, 2005, anniversary of the flood, which I was going to use as the publicity “hook” on which to hang the launch of the book. Realizing that I had most of the experience and know-how I needed to get the book published, I decided that rather than throw away the three years I’d invested in the project, I’d just publish it myself. And so Word Forge Books was born. I named it as a division of The Word Forge, my freelance copywriting and marketing consultancy business.
It’s worth noting that in 2005, Facebook was just being born, most folks didn’t yet even have a website or know what a blog was, many weren’t yet even fluent on email, and Amazon.com was just getting on its feet. There was no Kobo, Smashwords, GoodReads or any of the other online tools that now make getting a book into the hands of readers such a relatively easy process. As has happened more than once in my career, my needs were ahead of the market, so I plowed ahead using the tools I had at hand. I try not to think now of all the money I poured into that pioneering effort and just try to be happy for my colleagues who won’t have to go through that now, when they try to do the same.
Less than a year ago, you started “The Indie Navigator” so you could focus on the consulting work on publishing…presumably one of your favorite parts. Could you tell us about that deciding moment and what you envision for its future?
Mary Shafer: It wasn’t any earth-shaking thing, really. I just finally realized that the majority of my new consulting clients in 2011-12 were authors and indie publishers, and that it would be far easier for me to brand myself that way. After all, one must take one’s own advice, no? So I found my market niche and am now working on building the Indie Navigator brand among those professionals. As for the future, I’m trying more to envision simply success, without too much detail around what that means. I’m learning, albeit slowly, that even though creative visualization (my way of manifesting what I want from my life) usually works best when it’s very detailed, sometimes those details can be limiting when they’re taking place in an industry changing as rapidly as publishing is. SO I’m just remaining open to following the needs of my market right now. I don’t need to lead the market — that’s an expensive and exhausting place to be, I’ve discovered. I’m happy simply helping people not make the same mistakes I did, and hopefully making their publishing experiences as rewarding and enjoyable as possible.
Last question, with as many “hats on your head” do you still have time to write? And if yes, what are you currently working on?
Mary Shafer: Sadly, I don’t have much time to write anymore, and that’s one thing with which I struggle these days. Still, I have had some success the last two years using NaNoWriMo as the disciplined framework upon which to work up to nearly 26,000 words on my novel-in-progress, “Lonely Cottage Road.” It’s a Civil War-era historical romance with a slight paranormal twist, whose theme is the importance of honoring the creative urge. How’s that for vague? It’s my first novel, and I’m looking forward to having more time to work on it as I consolidate some of my other obligations in the near future. I’ve recently finished some rather large volunteer commitments that had become tremendously time- and energy-consuming, and I’m also re-tooling how I make my living to produce more income in less time. We’ll see how that goes.
Meanwhile, as I do all that, I’m also laying the groundwork for a novel series called “The Storm Diaries.” It features the adventures of forensic meteorologist Stephanie “Stormy” McLeod, her special needs dog Oogie, and her best pal, metal detectorist T.J. Tanner in solving cold-case mysteries around severe weather events. This series will allow me to combine my three great passions — severe weather, treasure hunting and animal rescue — into what I hope will be a long-running novel series that will allow me to make a living while writing off as a business expense my research trips to the National Severe Storms Laboratory and the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, and my own storm chasing tours. You can learn more at StormDiaries.com, and follow me on Twitter at @stormdiaries, where I often live-tweet severe weather events all over the US. You might wonder why I’m doing all that so long before the first novel even comes out. I’m taking my own advice and building my author platform ahead of time so that when it’s time for the book to come out, not only will I have a ready-made market to promote to, I’ll even be able to fund the first printing with pre-orders!
Thank you again, Mary, for taking the time for this interview! I look forward to seeing you at the conference.
Mary Shafer: Tammy, thank YOU for the good questions and your willingness to write up the interview. I hope I’ve been helpful and not too overwhelming. Also looking forward to meeting you at The Write Stuff!
Mary Shafer. The Indie Navigator, is an award-winning author, indie publisher, marketing consultant and professional speaker. She shares what she learned the hard way with other authors and indie publishers, so they don’t have to make the same mistakes.
Entering book publishing in 1990 as an art director, Mary developed experience in most facets of the industry, including editing and marketing. By 1993, her first book was published by a mid-sized indie publisher. As a first-time author, her book wasn’t even expected to earn out. Blissfully unaware the odds were stacked against her, she used what she knew about marketing to tirelessly promote her book. It eventually went into three printings, selling 15,000 hardcover and earning her some attractive royalties. Her second hardcover came out in 1995, and her first self-published book sold out its entire first run of 2,500 copies in 42 days. Now in its second, updated edition and sixth printing, it has sold more than 6,000 print copies to date and is about to come out as an eBook.
In 2013, she launched The Indie Navigator brand to allow her to concentrate her consulting work on the market she knows best, publishing. She doesn’t want other authors to have to make all the painful mistakes she’s made, but believes that despite all the upheaval, this is the most exciting time to be a small, independent publisher and self-published author. In addition to her consulting work, she presents at writers conferences, to writers groups, publishing organizations and online to help authors and small publishers recognize the great potential for success in the new “wild west” of publishing brought on by technological innovation and the resulting changes in the marketplace.
Mary brings her knowledge and experience to every project she works on with her Indie Navigator clients (IndieNavigator.com).
Tammy Burke, GLVWG member, 2011 conference chair and past president, has published around 400 newspaper and regional magazine articles. She has interviewed state and local government officials, business and community leaders, everyday folk and celebrities, in addition to helping write scripts for over a dozen television commercials and writing various business communications. Currently, she is in the revision stage for her first YA fantasy adventure book, the first in an intended series. When not writing, she works in the social service field and is a fencing marshal in the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA).