Recently Karen McQuestion did an amazing thing. She shot through all the roadblocks writers usually encounter on the way to publishing a book and brought two of her manuscripts out on the Kindle, where they are selling briskly.
Over the weekend, I downloaded Karen’s romantic comedy, Easily Amused, onto my husband’s iPhone through a free Kindle app and read it Sunday. I had to finish it for two reasons: one, I couldn’t put it down and two, my husband would be taking his phone to work on Monday.
And I had to know how the situation between Lola and Hubert and Ryan worked itself out. Also, I was waiting for Lola to smack her bratty sister, who deliberately plans her wedding on Lola’s 30th birthday, the better to rub it in that she’s younger and getting married first.
Her sister and the guys aren’t Lola’s only problems. She has recently inherited an old house from her aunt, and the neighbors are just a tad too friendly. Lola likes her privacy, but she’s not getting any, and the situation does not improve when her best friend temporarily moves in.
The one bright spot is the cute guy across the street. Lola’s wise-cracks and the comic situations she finds herself in almost allowed me to forget I was reading off a phone screen. But after the last laugh, I did hint strongly to the man who lost his phone for a day that the Kindle would be a perfect Christmas present.
Here’s my chat with Karen about how, after trying the traditional publishing route and finding the market really tough for first time authors, she came to choose this innovative form of e-publication.
Cindy: So, after print publishing didn’t pan out, did you consider submitting to e-publishers or go right to the Kindle?
Karen: I made the jump right to Kindle! I was inspired by an article about Boyd Morrison, an author whose agent was unsuccessful in finding a publishing home for his novel. After making that novel and two others available as Kindle releases, he found his readers and ultimately a publisher. That article really resonated with me, since I also had an agented novel that never sold, despite compliments from the editors who’d considered it. I loved the idea of reaching readers directly through Kindle and Amazon.
At the end of July I released the aforementioned novel, a romantic comedy titled Easily Amused, and a second book, Lies I Told My Children, a collection of humorous essays. I had no expectations because frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew one person with a Kindle, and I didn’t know any other writers who’d done this. I set the price at less than two dollars, thinking Kindle owners would be more open if the cost was low. Once the books were uploaded, along with the cover art and description, I did some online promotion on message boards and blogs. Happily, the sales starting rolling in, followed by good reviews, and then a rise up the Kindle charts. In the last several weeks the novel has consistently been in the top 25 in the contemporary romance category, and the essay book has done equally as well in the humor listing.
Cindy: Which came first, the essays or the fiction?
Karen: When I started writing seriously more than ten years ago, it was the short personal pieces that were accepted for publication. At the same time I was writing some really dreadful short stories. Luckily those never made it into print. My success in selling essays spurred me on and eventually they were published in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, and broadcast on radio. Still I wanted to create fictional worlds. Realizing my shortcomings, I set the short stories aside in 2002 and starting writing novels. I think my brain is wired for the longer form.
Cindy: Your non-fiction has been published in Newsweek and broadcast on NPR. Is it more difficult for writers to get published in 2009 than it was when you started?
Karen: In one regard it is more difficult. Due to the economy and the Internet, the print market is shrinking. Many publications that used to be open to submissions from free-lancers now rely on staff and syndicates to fill their pages. But there is a positive side in that the web is filled with sites, all of which need content. Additionally, an unpublished writer can set up their own site or blog and feature their writing there. And there is the Kindle now too, which is opening doors in big ways.
Cindy: Rejection is so tough, but it happens to almost all writers. How do you deal with it? What’s your threshold to the “no” response before you give up on publishing a piece?
Karen: I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been rejected overall. Hundreds? Thousands? Maybe tens of thousands. When I first started out it was so painful. I’d try to find meaning in the words (if I was a talented writer and it was a compelling story why didn’t they want it?). There were several times, usually after a near-miss, where I’d get frustrated and decide I was through with writing. That usually lasted a day or two and then I’d get another “really good idea.” Now I put my best effort out there and take rejection in stride. No one owes me publication and every acceptance is a victory. I usually submit a shorter piece fifteen to twenty times before I decide to give it a rest. And after that I may revise and send it out again. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing.
Cindy: Are you a member of any writer’s organizations? Have they helped you?
Karen: I belong to a local writers’ group (hi, nice writers of Chapter One!). Their help and encouragement were instrumental in getting me started. I was clueless in so many ways, but eager to know it all. Later I was part of a terrific private novel writing group. Unfortunately it disbanded when several members went in different directions. Over the years I also attended many classes and workshops, some more helpful than others.
Cindy: What about other inspirations?
Karen: Reading wonderful authors inspires me to work on improving, and reading terrible fiction makes me analyze how it could have been done better. There is value in both, I think. There are also several books that inspire me when I’m stuck or need a boost of creative energy.
Bird by Bird—Anne Lamott
On Writing—Stephen King
The Writer’s Journey—Christopher Vogler
Stein on Writing—Sol Stein
I’m also inspired by the unwavering support of my family and friends, especially my husband and mother, both of whom have always been sure I’d be successful as a novelist.
Cindy: Aside from the Kindle, how has the internet influenced your writing career? Does it help to have a blog?
Karen: Impatient person that I am, I love submitting via email. I also admit to trying to crack the email code and contacting editors directly instead of filling out their online form. Many times this has worked out for me, although you can’t quote me on that. As far as my blog goes, I don’t update often enough to have generated a huge following. I do think though, that it’s advantageous to have a web presence so that someone who is interested in your work gets a feel for who they’re dealing with.
Cindy: How has your point of view on writing for the marketplace changed from when you began querying traditional publishing houses and print magazines?
Karen: I have a better sense of writing as a business. I was resistant to that idea initially. I wanted to write what I wanted to write. I was afraid if I tried to cater to the market it would feel too much like doing homework, and suck all the fun out of the creative process. What I’ve found though, is that I can work within the guidelines and still own the writing. For instance, when submitting my essays for radio, I have to chop 300 words off my usual length. It’s still my voice and idea–just shaped into something to fit their format.
Cindy: What do you think of e-books?
Karen: First off, I have to say I love books. I love the physicality of turning pages, and closing a good book after reading it, knowing there’s a whole world between those covers. Libraries and bookstores are among my favorite places. Now having said that, I don’t think e-books are going away anytime soon, but I also don’t think they will completely replace books. Just like computers make writing easier, e-books are making book buying and reading easier. And I’m all for people reading in any format. One of the features I love is that you can increase the font size. As the populations ages that will help a lot of people. And as someone who is finding success with Kindle books, I’m grateful to the e-book readers who are willing to take a chance on new authors. It’s been a terrific opportunity for me.
Cindy: Any advice for new writers looking to break into a rapidly changing marketplace?
Karen: Embrace the rapidly changing marketplace. You’re a writer–creativity is in your nature. It’s the whole one door closes, another door opens concept. Just think, if you’d been the one cooking and blogging your way through the Julia Child cookbook, Amy Adams would have been playing you in the movie. And you’d be on the New York Times bestseller list. Sadly, that idea is already taken, but there are countless others. The good news is that somewhere inside of you is a story only you can tell. Don’t give up. Get out there and do it.