Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Interview with an Inspiration

For those of you who don't know her, Shayne Parkinson is the author of Sentence of Marriage, a beautiful work of historical fiction that's the 6th most downloaded book of all time on Smashwords from over 11,000. I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak to her about how she has managed to achieve this in such an unassuming yet effective way.

You can find out about Shayne on her Smashwords profile, and her website, and you can follow her blog.

Sentence of Marriage (read a recent review here)

In 19th Century New Zealand, there are few choices for a farm girl like Amy. Her life seems mapped out for her by the time she is twelve. Amy dreams of an exciting life in the world beyond her narrow boundaries. But it is the two people who come to the farm from outside the valley who change her life forever, and Amy learns the high cost of making the wrong choice. Book 1 of "Promises to Keep".

A huge thank you to Shayne:

1. Why did you decide to self-publish?
I've never tried the traditional publishing route. I write mainly because I enjoy the company of my characters, and want to find out what they're up to. Cool observation of the process of seeking publication (especially in New Zealand, where very little fiction by unknown writers is published) suggests to me that if I *did* try I'd plunge myself into a cycle of ill-founded hope, well-intentioned but quite possibly ill-advised rewrites, and repeated disappointments. I decided to skip the disappointment stage.
But I *do* love having readers. In the early days of my writing, this meant manuscripts passing around to friends and acquaintances and friends of acquaintances. Now I can use the wonders of the Web to distribute on a grander scale.

2. Having made the decision to self-publish, you have focused very much on e-publishing. What was the reasoning behind that?
I didn't actually start with e-publishing, though it's certainly where I am now. I first encountered self-publishing when an online friend of mine mentioned that she'd put a novel on Lulu. It seemed a good way of making print versions of my work available to people who'd expressed a desire to have a copy of their own, and that's what I used it for. Print-On-Demand for long books like mine is an expensive option, and my print sales have never been above a trickle.
I came across Smashwords last year. I loved the enthusiasm and energy of its founder, Mark Coker, and his determination to make self-published e-books available on an ever-increasing range of platforms. With e-publishing, it's no more expensive to produce a 600-page book than a 200-page one, and there's no postage to double the price of my print books. The tyranny of distance no longer rules.

3. You write historical fiction, and it has always seemed to me that this lends itself very well to your approach, both because it has a loyal, genre-based following, and because HF books tend to be longer than average, meaning the price of a self-published paperback will be relatively high. How effective do you think your approach is for authors working in different areas?
That's an interesting observation, and you're quite right regarding length and price. I can't comment with any authority on other genres, but I won't let that stop me.
Fantasy also tends to be long, and seems quite well-represented on Smashwords (my husband has a couple of fantasy novels there, so I keep an eye on the genre). Science fiction, too, seems to do well as e-books (and the one full-length novel on Smashwords with more downloads than mine is SF). Romance has a very visible e-presence, perhaps because romance fans are often voracious readers. They're certainly well-served by some very smart sites.
I'd wondered if historical fiction readers might be less enthusiastic about adopting e-reading than followers of more tech-y genres, but that doesn't seem to be the case, going by download figures. Liking to read about the past isn't the same as wanting to live there.

4. You have made the decision to make Sentence of Marriage free, but to charge for other books. Can you explain the rationale behind that.
I'm an unknown writer amid a plethora of unknown writers, and using a medium where people are used to finding vast amounts of free content. Even a cost of a few cents can be enough to put people off if it means registering with a new site, remembering where the credit card is, etc. By making Sentence of Marriage free, people are far more likely to download it. Most of those people will never get around to reading it, of course (some people collect more or less every free e-book they come across), or will take a look and decide it's not for them. But quite a few get entangled in my web, and find they have to read on.
I did originally charge for Sentence of Marriage as well, and sales were more of a drip than a trickle. It didn't take long after I made it free of charge for sales of the other books to reach the hundreds. The fact that I'm now making a modest amount of money from my books means I can justify spending more time writing, and no longer need to subsidise my research costs with my "real" job.

5. Sentence of Marriage is the 6th most downloaded book on Smashwords, a site with almost 12,000 titles. How did you manage that?
I'm as surprised as anyone else! I'm also delighted. It still feels like a compliment every time someone downloads a book (and there have been over 11,000 downloads now, so I feel very complimented).
Marketing is not something that comes naturally to me, but I do like talking about my books. I've been lucky enough to have enthusiastic readers who've encouraged others to take a chance on an unknown. Probably the biggest single factor has been an unexpected bonus of making Sentence of Marriage free: it then got listed in several directories of free e-books. That was when I first started seeing a big increase in downloads, and it's a trend that's continued.

6. Your book has attracted a lot of very positive reviews. How easy did you find it getting people to read and review a self-published e-book?
Many review sites do say "No self-published" and/or "no e-books"; probably the majority of them, in fact. But I think this is gradually changing, especially regarding e-books, and it's worth looking for the exceptions. Some sites do specialise in particular genres, or perhaps specialise in *avoiding* particular genres, and of course it's important to check that before submitting.
I've had very nice reviews from formal review sites, and I've also been fortunate enough to have some lovely ones on Smashwords. Almost all the Smashwords reviews are from people I've had no contact with, and have no idea how they found the books - I wish I did, as I could thank them properly! I've also come across an occasional review in blog entries from specially generous readers, and I'm sure these have sent people my way.

7. What would your three top pieces of advice be to those thinking of doing what you have done?
- Trite though it sounds, make your book the best it can be before you unleash it on the world. Share it with people who'll give you their honest opinions, take note of their responses while respecting your own gut feelings. Polish, polish, polish. Don't give ammunition to the people who disparage self-published work as full of typos and grammatical errors, and inevitably poorly edited.
- Be visible, but don't be a pain. People don't appreciate having their forums or blogs invaded by people who are only there to blatantly promote their books. I've found a couple of friendly forums where I enjoy chatting about books and about life in general; if I didn't feel I wanted to interact with these people, I'd just slip away quietly.
- Make the most of what the Web offers. Use tools like Google Analytics and Google alerts. Make judicious use of hyperlinks; for example, in my books I put a link to my website, where I have family trees and some historical background to the books' settings. Blog, but don't try and make your blog a clone of anyone else's. When I started mine, I vaguely assumed I'd mainly blog about the writing process. I soon realised that there are squillions of other blogs out there where people make a better job of that than I would, and the world does not need to read my love song to the adverb.

8. What next for you?
I'm looking forward to Smashwords books being available in the Kindle store, and to getting sales figures from partners like Barnes & Noble. As for new work: one thing I'm never short of is ideas. I have a work-in-progress; unfortunately I'm possibly the world's slowest living writer, and it's likely to be at least a year before it's finished. I have plots in various stages of development for at least half a dozen after that. I've plans for research trips to various parts of the country, including some places I haven't been to since childhood. I have vague plans for making an audiobook, and have made a small start towards that. My head continues to be full of characters clamouring for attention, and I continue to enjoy letting them tell their stories.


  1. An excellent and highly interesting interview.
    Well done, Shayne & Dan. :)

  2. Thanks. It was an absolute pleasure getting to know more about Shayne.

  3. Shayne really is an inspiration and a great writer as well!

  4. Really interesting, thanks.

  5. Great interview, Shayne. It's fascinating to know what makes each writer tick. Wishing you every success. (Not that you need it. :))

  6. Shayne is a talented writer whose works speaks volumes for itself. Proud to have 'met' her via the wonders of the internet. She's an inspiration.

  7. What a great interview, I learnt much about the ebook phenonomen and I am delighted at Shayne's success...so well deserveed.

  8. So glad to see Shayne has so many supporters - she's been an inspiration to me, and I'm delighted to see she is to others

  9. Wow, what a lovely list of names! Steve, Marion, Helen, Vicki, Sheena, Gemi, Raven:
    thank you so much for visiting, and for your lovely comments.

    And Dan: thank you so much for inviting me.

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