Saturday, June 2, 2012

Author Interview: Beth Orsoff

"Every author thinks (or used to think in the pre-Kindle days) that a traditional publishing contract meant that your publishing career had finally begun. Unfortunately for me ..."

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

This should be an easy question but it isn’t. I think I did want to be a writer when I was a child, but it didn’t come naturally to me and I was easily discouraged. Since I was better at other things I focused on those instead. But the writing bug never really left me. It just got buried for a while. I didn’t purchase my first
“How to Write a Novel” book until I was twenty-six years old. And I’ve been pursuing a professional writing career ever since. 

Who are your favorite authors?

I hate his question because the answer is too many to name! Since I write chick lit I’ll name some of my favorite chick lit books instead. In no particular order:

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding – The one that started it all. Although it really is just an updated version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Really. If you don’t believe me, read the two books back to back and it will be blindingly obvious. But hey, if you’re gonna steal, than steal from the best (and preferably from a book that’s in the public domain).  

Something Borrowed and Something Blue by Emily Giffin – Her heroines do some despicable things and yet you root for them anyway. You have to be a talented writer to pull that off.

Skipping a Beat by Sarah Pekkanen – This is a book that I wish I had written. And I’ve recommended it to so many people Sarah Pekkanen should be sending me royalties!

Your story is an interesting one in that you’ve been published traditionally, self-published, and now have a multi-book contract with Amazon Publishing. Let’s start from the beginning by having you tell us about your first book—both what it’s about and its publishing history.

My first novel, Romantically Challenged, is about a thirty-two year old entertainment attorney named Julie Burns who becomes convinced that finding The One is “just a numbers game” so she sets out to increase her numbers by any means necessary. From chance meetings and blind dates to dating services and the wonderful world of the Internet, Julie will try anything to meet her man.

I wrote the first five drafts of this novel between 2001 and 2002. When I started querying agents I received lots of requests for “partials” (that’s publishing parlance for when an agent asks to read the first few chapters of a manuscript), some requests for “fulls” (that’s when after reading and liking the first few chapters the agent asks to see the rest of the manuscript), and lots of lovely (and lots of not so lovely) rejection letters. I felt like the book was about ninety percent there, but I didn’t know how to get it to one hundred percent. By this point I had taken many writing classes at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program so I went back to UCLA and signed up for their manuscript consultation service where one of their instructors reads and edits your manuscript like a professional editor would. What I received back was an eight-page single-spaced e-mail telling me all the things that were wrong with my manuscript with suggestions of how to fix it.

What I remember most about that experience was that my friends who had read the book were defensive—they felt like the editor was attacking the book. Whereas I felt like the editor was trying to make the book better. In the end I took about ninety percent of the editor’s suggestions. After two more drafts I started querying agents again. This time I was offered representation relatively quickly and that agent sold the book to Penguin six weeks later.

Romantically Challenged was originally published by Penguin in April 2006.   

After Romantically Challenged was published, what happened next? Why did you eventually decide to self-publish?

What happened next was a whole lotta nothing. Every author thinks (or used to think in the pre-Kindle days) that a traditional publishing contract meant that your publishing career had finally begun. Unfortunately for me my first chick lit novel was published about six months after the chick lit market had imploded. Brick and mortar bookstores no longer wanted to stock chick lit and publishers didn’t want to publish it.

Penguin had an option on my next book too, but since it was also chick lit they weren’t interested. Nor was any other publisher. And since publishers were no longer buying chick lit, agents no longer wanted to represent it.

Agent #1 and I parted ways and I wrote a comic mystery entitled Honeymoon for One. I signed with a new agent relatively quickly—she loved the book and was anxious to shop it to all the major publishers. And although the plot was definitely a mystery, the characters and “voice” were still chick lit, so that book didn’t sell either.

So I wrote another book entitled How I Learned to Love the Walrus, which I considered chick lit with depth, but since the term chick lit was verboten in publishing circles, I had to call it “humorous women’s fiction” (to distinguish it from the Jodi Picoult-type depressing women’s fiction). Unfortunately agent #2 hated this book no matter what I called it. I wrote several drafts for her trying to get the book to be what she wanted it to be, and I even worked with a freelance editor that she had recommended (the editor loved the book in its original form, by the way), but no matter how I twisted and shaped the story it wasn’t the story that agent #2 wanted it to be and we agreed to part ways. Thus the hunt for agent #3 began in earnest. 

I signed with agent #3 in December 2009, around the same time I started reading Joe Konrath’s blog and started hearing more and more about e-books and self-publishing. I had already requested my rights back from Penguin for Romantically Challenged, which had been out of print for some time. Penguin finally reverted the rights back to me in spring 2010. 

By this point agent #3 was shopping Walrus to all the major publishers and although it was often praised by editors, it was always rejected, usually on the grounds that the book was unmarketable—or at least they didn’t know how to market it. The book wasn’t really women’s fiction (too funny for that) and it wasn’t really romance (although there is a romance in the book, it’s not the main thrust of the story). Essentially the book was chick lit and publishers still weren’t buying chick lit because the chick lit market was dead (so sayeth the publishers thus making it a self-fulfilling prophecy).

So while agent #3 searched for new publishers who might be willing to take a chance on Walrus, I decided to update Romantically Challenged and self-publish it as an e-book. And to my amazement, it started selling. Then I pulled out that comic mystery novel that agent #2 loved but couldn’t sell and self-published that one too. To my even bigger amazement, Honeymoon for One immediately started outselling Romantically Challenged (this trend would later reverse and to this day Romantically Challenged is my all-time bestseller).  

By September 2010 all the major publishers had rejected Walrus and my agent told me she wanted to start pitching it to e-publishers. That’s when I put the brakes on. My question to her was “What can an e-publisher do for me that I can’t do for myself (or hire someone to do for me such as cover design and editing)?” I never received a satisfactory response to that question so in November 2010 I self-published Walrus too. That was the first month I had three books for sale, and the first month I sold over 1000 e-books. Then Christmas came and my sales exploded. What started out as a self-publishing experiment turned into a career.  

Tell us about each of the three books you self-published after re-publishing Romantically Challenged.

Disengaged is classic chick lit. Here’s the blurb:

When L.A. accountant Allie Zenet's fiancé proposes she's thrilled, both with her fiancé and her brand-new sparkly diamond ring. As wedding plans progress, Allie still adores her ring, her fiancé less so. Is it just the stress of trying to plan a wedding with the mother-in-law-to-be from hell? Or is Allie about to make the biggest mistake of her life?

How I Learned to Love the Walrus is a romantic comedy set in Alaska. Here’s the blurb:

When Los Angeles publicist Sydney Green convinces her boss to let her produce a documentary for the Save the Walrus Foundation, the only one Sydney Green is interested in saving is herself. The walruses are merely a means to improving her career and her love life, and not necessarily in that order. Sydney would've killed the project the second she learned she'd be the one having to spend a month in rural Alaska if it had been for any other client. But for rising star and sometimes boyfriend Blake McKinley, no sacrifice is ever too great.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the Arctic. A gregarious walrus pup, a cantankerous scientist, an Australian sex goddess, a Star Wars obsessed six-year-old, and friends and nemeses both past and present rock Sydney Green's well-ordered world. Soon Sydney is forced to choose between doing what's easy and doing what's right.

Honeymoon for One is a comic mystery. Here’s the blurb:

There are worse things in life than being dumped at the altar. Like being accused of killing your fake husband in a third world country where you can't speak the language, for example.

When Lizzie Mancini booked her honeymoon to the secluded Blue Bay Beach Resort on the small Caribbean island of Camus Caye she thought it would be relaxing to spend the week at an isolated couples-only retreat. But that was before she knew she'd be honeymooning sans groom. Touring alone, dining alone, and worst of all, having to explain to the resort's thirty other guests why she was staying in the bridal suite alone--Lizzie was dreading it. But it still beat the alternative, eight more days hibernating in her empty apartment feeling sorry for herself.

Then Lizzie meets Michael, a gold-chained antiquities dealer who offers to play her husband for the week no strings (or sex) attached. The plan works perfectly until Lizzie spends the night with scuba instructor Jack, and Michael's body washes up on Blue Bay's pristine shore. Lizzie becomes Polizia Nationale's number one suspect and the only way she can prove her innocence is to solve Michael's murder herself.

From your experience what are the pros and cons of traditional publishing versus self-publishing, both from the author perspective and from the reader perspective?

From the author perspective, the major pro of self-publishing is that you are in control of everything. You don’t like your editor? Hire another one. Not happy with the cover? Create a new one (or hire someone to create it for you). Think the price should be higher or lower or you want to run a special promotion for a week? Do it. And you also get to keep the bulk of the money, which is quite nice too J. But the major con of self-publishing is that you are now responsible for everything. If there’s a problem with the editing, it’s your problem. If the cover’s not working, it’s your responsibility to come up with a new one. Any promotion the book receives (and all books need at least a little push) has to come from you. And if it’s a disaster, it’s your disaster. You have no one to blame but yourself.

From the reader perspective, the pros of self-publishing are that readers are offered a much wider variety of books at much lower prices. Almost all self-published e-books are $4.99 or less (often less). Unless they’re running some sort of a limited-time promotion, most major publishers charge $9.99, $12.99, or even higher for their e-books. Readers can buy three, four, sometimes even five times as many self-published e-books for the price of one traditionally published e-book. And with so many formerly traditionally published authors now self-publishing, readers are getting professionally written and edited books—the same book an author would’ve written under contract for a major publisher—but at a fraction of the price.

Readers are also getting to choose from books that may not have mass market appeal (or at least publishers believed these books didn’t have mass market appeal), but may still appeal to them. Traditional publishers love to follow trends. It’s not a coincidence that after Twilight became a hit every other book on the shelves contained a vampire. And if you’re a reader who doesn’t happen to like to read vampire books you’re out of luck. Or at least you were out of luck in the pre-self-publishing days. Yes, there are plenty of vampire books among self-published novels too. But there are also plenty of other types of books as well.

From the reader perspective, the con of self-publishing is that there are now some truly awful books lining the virtual shelves. Books that never would’ve gotten past those traditional gatekeepers and aren’t ready for publication. But if you read samples (even just the first page or two) and blogs like this one, it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid the truly awful books. And if you happen to purchase one by accident you can always return it.   
How did your deal with Amazon come about? What can you tell us about it?

I was the lucky recipient of an Amazon promotion as a self-published author. One day Amazon sent a mass email to customers listing six chick lit books – four were traditionally published and How I Learned to Love the Walrus was one of the two self-published books. I saw an immediate increase in sales not only for that book but for my other books as well. I experienced firsthand Amazon’s ability to sell books. 

And even though agent #3 was not then shopping any of my manuscripts to publishers, we hadn’t parted ways. I would sometimes get inquiries regarding foreign rights or from smaller publishers and I would forward them to agent #3. One day we were talking about a rights inquiry when I mentioned that Amazon was probably the only domestic publisher I’d be interested in doing a deal with at this point because they were the only publisher that could actually sell books. She told me she had just made a deal with Amazon for another one of her clients and asked if I wanted her to contact them on my behalf regarding Walrus.  I said yes, figuring that since they had of their own accord promoted that book for me someone over there probably liked it. (To be honest, I have no idea how they choose books for their promotions.)

Amazon said yes they were interested but not just in Walrus. They wanted the rights to all of my books. Thus began a negotiation. In the end they picked up the rights to Walrus, Honeymoon for One, and Disengaged, and bought a new book from me entitled Vlad All Over. The three existing books, which have been re-edited and will receive new covers, will be re-released in September; and the new book will be released in October.   

Do you view Amazon Publishing as the same as a traditional publisher or as something different?

I consider Amazon Publishing similar to a traditional publisher, but definitely not the same. They are much more open to input from authors than traditional publishers. They also have the ability to sell books in a way that traditional publishers don’t and likely never will have. 

What are your future writing plans?

I’m currently writing the sequel to Vlad All Over. After that, I’m not sure. But I have no doubt that whatever I write next, even if not a traditional chick lit book, will have that chick lit voice.

What do you like to do in your leisure time?

Since I spend most of my day sitting in front of a computer, I try to either swim or work out at the gym four or five days a week. My husband and I are also big movie and television fans so most evenings we can be found in front of a TV or movie screen. And when we have more time, we like to travel. In fact, it was a recent trip to Romania that inspired me to write Vlad All Over.

Tell us one thing about yourself that you think would come as a surprise to most people?

I LOVE Elmo (yeah, the red guy from Sesame Street).

For More Beth:

Visit Beth's blog, like her on Facebook, or follow her on Pinterest. (She "doesn't get" twitter.)


(Note: Nook and other non-Kindle owners should grab these now, as all but the first will no longer be available once they are republished by Amazon Publishing.)

Romantically Challenged                Review  Amazon US UK B&N Smashwords 

Honeymoon for One                                  Amazon US UK B&N Smashwords 

How I Learned to Love the Walrus  Review  Amazon US UK B&N Smashwords 

Disengaged                                 Review  Amazon US UK B&N Smashwords 


Lynn O'Dell said...

Great interview.

I loved "Honeymoon for One." :-)

David said...

Good to see a self-published author doing well. Well done.

?wazithinkin said...

Thanks, Beth for the wonderful interview! I so was excited to see you here this morning! I have read all of your books and I can't wait to read Vlad All Over! You have had an interesting publishing journey, thank you for sharing it with your readers!

Al, as always, I love this feature of your blog! :) Thank you!

Walter Knight said...

It's a brave new world. Welcome!

Vicki said...

I really enjoy these author interview and getting to know the person behind the books. It makes the author more real somehow. :)

Beth, congratulations on your success. Your journey was certainly an interesting one. Thanks for sharing.

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks for all the comments. I've really enjoyed the addition of the interviews too. I think this kind of thing is part of what attracts many readers to indie authors. That is positive in many ways to both the author and reader. It also has some downsides, for example I'm absolutely convinced that Julie in Romantically Challenged is a very thinly disguised Beth and no matter how much she tries to deny it, I refuse to believe her.

Unknown said...

Wonderful interview, Beth and Al. Keep them coming!

Kristie Leigh Maguire said...

Love the interview, Al and Beth! I always love hearing more about authors, expecially those who went the traditional route are now self-publishing.

Keep up the great work, Beth!

Kris Bock said...

Congratulations on navigating your way through the pitfalls of publishing and finding success! These sound like fun books.